Featured Post

A trick

Take a Bb minor pentatonic scale [Bb Db Eb F Ab] Now play these over a progression in the key of Db major. You will find that these note...

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Explaining your project

Sometimes you meet someone new and they ask you what you are working on, or you see an old friend or colleague, or a relative, or a colleague outside your field. You have to explain concisely what the quintessence of your project is, in terms your interlocutor will understand. You may have some follow-up questions to answer, depending on the level of sincere curiosity in the question.

I find answering this questions helpful in clarifying what it is I actually am doing--in relation to various audiences. Sometimes I come up with a new perspective on my project by having to come up with a new explanation on the spot.

Simplifying your project for your uncle or your kid's friend's parents can be clarifying. Having to explain it in all its complexity to an intimidating colleague, or in a job interview, represents another challenge. You can draw on these oral explanations when you are explaining your project in grant applications, in prefaces, forewords, prologues, and introductions, conclusions and postscripts, jacket copy for the published book--or anywhere in your project itself where you have to signpost your intentions. You shouldn't underestimate the importance of this skill. It's not for nothing that this is the standard MLA interview question upon which jobs are won and lost: "Tell me about your research."

Later, since I have nothing else to do this week (yeah right), I will be giving some examples or models. I think I am a little better at this than the average academic, so maybe this might be useful.

Coming soon...

I've invited another collaborator, Thomas B. of Denmark, to offer some Stupid Motivational Tricks here, probably later in February. Stay tuned for that.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Clustered deadlines

Deadlines that are close to each other create a lot of stress. I have a February 5, a March 5, and a March 2. For the March 5, I have had to get a preliminary draft done four to six weeks before. Some people might deal with this by just working to meet the deadlines in sequence, and not worry about the later ones. My approach, however, is to make sure that once I meet the Feb. deadlines, I will be in a position to do the March ones very quickly. That entailed making a list of the elements of the March 5 one and seeing if I could take care of some components earlier. My attitude is that I'll be as busy in the future as now, so that there no point in postponing something to a time when hypothetically I won't be quite as occupied. I avoided distracting multitasking by finishing discrete portions of the grants during particular times and days.

So for the three grants,

I have the NEH Seminar proposal 1st draft of the narrative description, which I've sent to the NEH for a first review. I've also filled out some other forms relating to this and made some calls and emails to people.

The internal grant for summer salary: I've written a version of the narrative and filled out the form except for the abstract. I can finish it easily when I get back from Spain, and revise any glitches in the prose.

Another travel grant from the university: I've made a list of components and warned the chair that she'll have to write a letter. I did the two-page cv.

When I get back from Spain I can then meet the deadlines in order, having done a lot of preparation for each one.

From Rough Notes to Prose

Here are some rough notes



This project.... aims to answer a central question.... the relation between literary modernism and the phenomenon of modernity... in Spain. While literary modernism as such could not have come into existence without modernity, it should be seen as as much a reaction against modernity as a celebration of it (Octavio Paz).

Modern Spanish poetry offers some peculiarties that make it both distinctively Spanish (rooted in debates surrounding national identity) and representative of other “peripheral” modernisms. I argue that these peripheral modernism are as central, in some respects, as those of France or the English-speaking world. Especially Latin America (relevant to my project) but also modernisms that take place Cavafy’s Alexandria or Pessoa’s Lisbon.


You'll notice that the first sentence of the second paragraph is pretty much a good sentence. My aim today is to turn these notes into something that's actually prose.

Here's version II:

The General Research Fund would aid in the completion of a book manuscript that I began in the summer of 2009. This project, Fragments of a Late Modernity: Spanish Poetry and the Paradoxes of Literary History, addresses a key problem in Spanish literary and intellectual history: the relation between modernism as a literary movement and the much-debated problem of Spain’s “struggle for modernity.” Although literary modernism is unimaginable without modernity in the historical sense of the term, it is a movement characterized by a deep ambivalence (if not outright hostility) toward the forces of modernization themselves. The tension between modernity and modernism creates a unique opportunity for exploring problems in literary and intellectual history.

Modern Spanish poetry offers some peculiarities that make it both distinctively Spanish (in other words, rooted in debates surrounding national identity) and representative of other “peripheral” modernisms. Latin America is especially relevant to my project, given the close literary ties between Spain and the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. Other examples of peripheral modernisms can be located in Pessoa’s Lisbon or Cavafy’s Alexandria. My premise is that such peripheral modernisms—the modernisms of less developed nations—evince their ambivalence toward modernity in especially distinctive and fascinating ways.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Descriptive

Descriptive work doesn't have an argument. It merely points out obvious things. It surveys and describes but doesn't explain or explore. Of a weaker graduate student, we might say, "he'll be fine doing something descriptive." Encyclopedia articles won't get you tenure. In fact, they might even be held against you.

You know more than you think you do

Take any subject that you don't think you know a lot about. In my case, these subjects might include film, classical music, or sociology, Portuguese poetry...

Now do an actual inventory of what you do know. I am not a real film person, but there are directors that I know a bit about, Kurosawa, Buñuel, Scorcese, Almodóvar. I know some actors' work. I have had tangential exposure to some film theory and criticism and know some basic concepts. All of a sudden film is part of my scholarly base. Voilà. If I had to talk about a film tangentially in a book devoted to something else, I could do it. If I had a year's sabbatical, I could learn enough to be a competent person by filling in some identifiable gaps.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Entrepreneur

A really strong researcher should also be an entrepreneur to some extent, organizing conferences, editing journals, and otherwise creating opportunities for other people to interact with one another. I've done a little of this kind of thing, but it's not my strength. I ran the poetics seminar at the Hall Center for the Humanities and invited guest speakers like Marjorie Perloff, Jordan Davis, Ron Silliman, and David Shapiro. I've organized sessions at the MLA. But it's not where I'm strongest. I don't like to depend on other people.

If I had one fewer book and a lot more entrepreneurship, I'm sure I would have a better job. People don't value the stay in your office and write books professor as much as the person who organizes stuff. If you are in a small field like Portuguese or Italian where you might be the only one (or one of two) people teaching that language, you almost have to be an entrepreneur.

I probably should have done an edited collection in place of one of my four single-authored books. Although a book you write yourself counts more on the purely research side of the equation, the edited collection has other benefits in terms of networking and visibility.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Discretion

Today I came into the office with the goal of writing one section of the grant application. It turned out that this only took me about 25 minutes, so the rest of the morning I'll spend thinking and writing about the other two main sections so that I'll be ready to do another section tomorrow.

Working on a single, limited and discrete section of a daunting project in a given period of time can be a highly effective technique. Concentrate all your energy on one very small task. It's like applying the entire force of your body to unscrew a particularly tight screw. Maybe your fingers hands and wrists are not strong enough, but what about your arms shoulders and hips?

Books are broken up into chapters, chapters unless they are extremely short will have subdivisions. You might think of a day's work as writing a page, leading to a week for a particular 7-8 page subdivision of the 30-page chapter.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Day Off

Today I'm taking the day off. True, I have a whole lot of things I need to do, but I got a whole lot of work done in the first 15 days of the year and will have to put in some hard days in the coming week. I need to stop and breathe a bit.

I'll be listening to jazz for the jazz course, but that doesn't really count as work. I'd be doing that anyway.

Aside from teaching and the requisite preparations, I have to get substantial work on the two grant proposals before I go to Spain next week, because I have early Feb. deadlines. We also have searches going on, with candidates coming in Feb. I don't really envision another pure rest day until maybe mid-February.

I believe in the design of the work week there has to be space, even in the busiest times. Just as you wouldn't want an office that was an open field, you wouldn't want one so crammed with stuff that you couldn't walk across it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Sabbatical Paradox

Ever have a sabbatical where you didn't get very much done? Very much, that is, in proportion to the time you had off? A semester's sabbatical would be from mid-December to mid-August, or mid-May to mid-January. A year-long one would be from May to mid August of the next year. That's seven months or even fifteen. But probably the actual work that got done was not proportional to that time. You may even get more done during a semester of teaching.

I know exactly why that happens: an excess of unstructured time. It would be like having your office be a huge warehouse. I don't know about you, I'd rather have my office in large closet than in an open field. An overabundance of space doesn't really make an office better. Having too much time is damaging in an analogous way. It can be extremely demoralizing to have a lot of time and not be productive. You'll have empty time and be bored, but still won't be getting done what you want to get done. Other obligations will invade your working time.

So what you want to do is design the time of a sabbatical to make it more like a regular semester of teaching. Design your week very deliberately. You can follow my model of using Sunday for planning, working fairly hard Monday through Thursday, and doing lighter work on Friday and even lighter work on Saturday. Or some other design more to your own personal style. The important thing is to write it down and follow it.

Lottery

You buy a lottery ticket at the convenience store. Chances of hitting it big are poor, but you didn't invest much.

Now consider writing a grant application. Even if the odds are stiff, they are going to be closer to 10/1 than 10,000,000 to 1. But even if a grant process is stiff, you can do things to make yourself "luckier," like turning in a good proposal. Now you are are at more like 4/1 or 3/1 odds. The same goes with submissions of articles. You can look at the general rate of acceptance, (12% say) but you can improve those odds by sending them a good article. A good article might still be rejected, but you will face good odds in the long run. I've had plenty of articles rejected, but you wouldn't know it from my cv. Probably two of my best articles were never even published, but who would know?

Grant Applications

I have two grant applications I need to do very soon. One is an internal grant for summer salary, the other is to be director of an NEH Summer Seminar.

Grant applications are particularly difficult: the most difficult kind of academic writing there is.

1. It is harder to explain why your project is significant, why it deserves funding, to non-specialists, than to actually do the project. More hangs on audience reaction (yes or no on the grant). Percentages are low.

2. Grant writing depends on other people aside from yourself to get things done. You need to plan for other people to do certain things, like write letters of recommendation or give institutional approval. There are two potential problems: not asking people in time, and having to wait for people to do things before you can do other things.

3. There may be other skills involved, of the non-scholarly variety, like doing budgets or understanding bureaucratic red tape.

4. Deadlines are more hard and fast. For your own projects deadlines can be self-imposed.

#4 is actually an advantage, since a hard and fast deadline is easier to keep. You can always change your self-imposed deadlines, and most changes are postponements rather than anteponements.

For people who are actually better at coordinating things with other people and arranging logistical details than at writing scholarship, 2 and 3 might not be a problem. For me they are, since I am considerably worse at those than I am at doing the actual work. I am very bad at budgets, for example.

I can craft a convincing narrative, so # 1 is not going to be a problem.

Another problem with grant writing is that you can spend almost all of your research time asking for time and money to get your research done. If your time is very limited in the first place, it might not be worth it. You might be better off just doing it. For me it is worth it, because my research time is not all that limited, and I've published a lot recently so a grant does more for me than another article.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Batteries

What recharges your batteries? What depletes them? I want you to make your own list.

For me:

Being around really smart people. Traveling to Spain and buying books. Reading or re-reading really great primary texts of literature. Having a productive day of work. Receiving very good reviews of my own work. Being cited by other scholars, even if they don't agree with me. Cleaning my office and getting rid of clutter. Eating really good food. Working on the "scholarship base." Music. Reading novels in languages I don't know. Exercise. Sleep. Stupid motivational tricks.

Teaching bad students. Grading papers. Reading crappy scholarship. Evaluating crappy scholarship. Bad dissertations. Department meetings. Having too much "dead time" when I'm neither working nor doing anything particularly enjoyable. Isolation from other human beings. Being around human beings I don't have much in common with. Aimless web-browsing. Waiting around for other people to do things. Stress in relationships.


Now that you have a list similar to mine, figure out how to maximize the battery recharging part and minimize the depletion. Here's the thing: you won't be able to eliminate everything that depletes your energy. Nor will you be able to maximize everything that replenishes you. I believe, however, that there is always something you can do to change the balance between replenishment and depletion. Looking at my own list, I see that I can check out some German novels from the library and read them rather than surfing the net aimlessly; I can continue to rid my office of clutter and eat something excellent for dinner. This stupid motivational trick works best if you can make a direct trade of something good for something depleting or simply neutral.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Frontloading

All my life I've been kind of disorganized. I'm trying out the concept of front-loading this semester, beginning the semester with a more or less organized office: nothing on my desk that does not pertain to what I am working on. The idea is to spend the time organizing before, rather than using that same time to find missing papers, etc... later on. It's shifting work earlier in order to save time later on, and getting an added sense of reassurance and calm that comes with the absence of clutter.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Against Multitasking As Such

Imagine a day in which you only had one thing to do, review an article for a journal, say. That would be a light day. You would probably be able to do this one task by reading the article in about 45 minutes, going to the gym and thinking about it a bit as you exercised, and then writing up a report later in the day, after dinner say, in about an hour.

That day, I would suggest, is more productive than a day in which nothing really gets done, even if there were more work hours in that day. There may only be about 10 really crucial tasks requiring more than one hour to do in a week. I suggest you do those one at a time and as early in the week as possible.

As academics we tend to overvalue multitasking. It makes us busier and thus we can feel better about our work ethic, but wouldn't it be better to just get things done?

Work Smart Not Hard

But smart work is hard work. Not tedious, but work of great intensity. I studied poetry as a young kid--from about 11 years old to the present, virtually every day, in order to see what made it work from the inside out. Nobody told me to do this; it wasn't for any class. Anything I learnt related to the subject I incorporated into my knowledge base. For example, in French class in high school we learned versification. I still know French versification. In college I would do enough to get good grades but spend more time with my own study, and so on.

There is a difference in mentality between people who study a subject to know superficial things about it, or to acquire a lot of trivial facts, and those who really want to know how things work. How does a poem work? What makes a great poem so great? Those are the questions I'm still asking.

This makes me a great researcher but not a great teacher. Why? Because the average student is not interested in how things work from the inside out. Even the graduate student doesn't seem to realize that there are these great unsolved problems. The music student loves music, but the Spanish literature student doesn't love literature. Not to complain, because that's a caviar problem as problems go.

Routinization

Doing the same things the same way every time can be both comforting and simplifying, increasing efficiency. On the other hand, breaking out of routines that aren't helpful can be liberating. The way to judge whether a given habit should be abandoned is whether it is creates an unnecessary obstacle, a hurdle you have to jump over. You should continually refine your routines rather than simply sticking to them or giving them up altogether.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Design of Work Time

Imagine designing the perfect office for yourself. What kind of lighting would you need, furniture, etc... I basically just sit down wherever I am and work. I wish I had the perfect environment but I don't.

Now think of your time as the temporal office. In other words, design your time as you would a physical space. For me the time is much more important that the physical space.

Here is mine for the upcoming semester.

Sunday: spend 1/2 hour to several hours, as needed, planning what will be done during the rest of the week.
Monday: go back to Kansas. Prepare Tuesday courses. "Precrastinate" on coming week, as Ms. Gabbert would say.
Tuesday: Teaching day. Prepare Thursday classes before and in between two classes.
Wednesday: Research day. Get something substantial written.
Thursday: Teaching day. Use time in between classes for library research or reading, or grading.
Friday: Drive back to St. Louis. Do no work at all except light reading if needed.
Saturday: Read, catch up on any other tasks.

So most of the work gets done between Sunday night and Thursday around 5:15. The week is front-loaded with work, much on the same principle as getting up early to get a head start on the day. Evenings are mostly free except on Monday. Almost all work for classes is done in the office between Monday afternoon / evening and Thursday. Writing will be done on Wednesdays and the weekends I don't go back to St Louis. Occasionally in the evening. I am working on a book, but I'm thinking I want to write only one or two chapters during the semester. One could be started on Wednesdays and finished during spring break. The other could be started right after that and done by the end of the semester.

The general principles of time design are pre-planning (use the time right before the work week), front-loading (doing as much as possible early in the day, early in the week, compression (doing as much as possible during normal work hours), and leaving space (at the ends of the day / week in reserve for when you really need it, rather than planning on working around the clock).

Clutter

Clutter can reduce focus by distracting the attention and by making materials harder to find. At the same time, some degree of clutter can provide a sense of comforting busyness. A complete lack of clutter can cause anxiety. Piles of clutter tend to follow me around: in my car, my office, my apartment, different rooms of my house, my computer desktop, my email inbox. This year I am keeping my inbox as clear as possible--even if it means searching through other folders to find old messages I need. I am also keeping the desktop of the computer as clear as possible, with only three folders of work. I am working toward an almost completely paperless existence. The idea would be to have only the computer itself, some notebooks, and whatever books I need at any given time.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Care and Feeding of the CV

The CV documents your entire career and needs to be updated monthly or whenever information changes. I view mine as a beast the must be fed. I am always correcting minor formatting errors and the like.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Shorter Projects

Doing a lot of very short projects can be inefficient. It seems easier to write a book review, but writing five 1,000-word reviews is probably more time than a 6 thousand-word article. Writing 10 such articles on disparate matters would be more work than a book of 10 chapters of 8,000 words each.

The advantage of shorter writing assignments, however, is that each one is less painful than a larger one would be. There is a more immediate short-term benefit in getting something done quickly. Since scholarship is a game of delayed gratification, it is nice to have a few things that pay off more immediately, if only in a fairly trivial way.

The trick, then, is to arrive at the right calculus of shorter and longer, shorter term and longer term, things that you have to write. In my case, for example, I sometimes published next to nothing in a year I was writing a book. Since my evaluation period is a calendar year, I have to make sure that something appears or is accepted each year, even if a long-term project might take several years to come out. At the same time, I can't let myself be distracted with lots of little stuff because that creates inefficiency.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Rhythm

in prose is related to the illusion of fluency. A lot of stylistic revisions I make have the aim of fixing unwanted rhythmic hiccups, interruptions of the flow. Once again, the process of writing (how you achieve that flow) is less important than the product, or having achieved that fluency at the end. Unfortunately, few of us are fluent writers in early drafts.

Take that paragraph above, which is basically written on the fly. It's fine for a blog post, but wouldn't really cut it in one of my books. Almost no prose is as well-written rhythmically as poetry. That would be an impossible standard. Of course most poetry doesn't achieve that standard either.

I'm writing something in Spanish now to give as a talk later this month. The rhythm of Spanish prose is quite different because the information structure of sentences is more flexible and sentences tend to be longer, with more seemingly unimportant material in the beginning of sentences, so this makes me conscious of having to achieve a different sort of flow in my writing.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Writing as Product, not Process

I envision writing as a product, not a process. I think an over-emphasis on the process itself is damaging in that it prevents us from envisioning the final product that we are aiming for. I call this the translators fallacy: suppose the translator goes back and forth between the words "vertigo" and "dizziness" a half-dozen times, finally settling on "dizziness." The translator can write a beautiful essay explaining the process, but ultimately the reader of the translation only has the final result, one work of the other. It doesn't matter if a sentence is revised many times if the end-result is not better.

There should be, I feel, a base-line first-draft style that is serviceable and produced with some degree of fluency. Revisions of style might still be laborious, but they will make something good even better.

Fluent Writing

I'd like to be able to write fluently the way I can sometimes talk fluently. In other words, produce complete sentences continuously on the first try, writing pretty much at the pace of medium-slow typing. I can do it in blogging, but more rarely in scholarly writing. I think the culture of revision means that we have trained ourselves not to write so fluently: after all, we can always go back and rewrite it. I'm thinking about trying to develop that capacity of fluency. I did it this morning, finishing the preface to the new modernism book fairly quickly.

Here the key might be to notice when I'm doing it and trying to remember what it feels like.