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Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Commuting Academic

I work in one place and have my family in another--a five-hour commute. This has posed special problems in my work habits, since I lose 10 hours the weeks I drive back home, have my work materials scattered between apartment, office, house, and car, and have conflicting demands on my attention. I'm surprised I am able to get anything done at all, but I think I have managed to develop some efficiencies out of the very difficulties that beset me. When I have to stay weekends at my job, I get a lot done. I plan the week efficiently so I don't have to bring a lot of work home when I am away from the office. I use the five-hour drive to come up with new ideas. I am less neurotic about having to have every book I need at any one time. If there's a book I need that's 300 miles away, I just work around the missing material until I have a chance to get it.

In short, a less than ideal situation does not prevent above average scholarly productivity.

Quality Time

The problem is almost never "not having enough time" in purely quantitative terms. Rather, it is that the time one does have is low quality--tired, low-energy time, interrupted or fragmented time. Think of a month--720 hours--in which you must at some point complete a task that requires 24 hours. It would seem a simple matter to find 24 hours somewhere amid the 720, but it is not always so.

The main factors are time of day, continuity, and appropriate space. In other words, you must find some good quality hours when you aren't exhausted, won't be interrupted, and can be in an appropriate environment.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Jumping over the pond (iii)

If you are considering moving (partially) into a new field, as I am, you'll have to think systematically about what this would entail. As I took inventory of my scholarly base in Latin American poetry, I found some strengths and quite a few gaps. I came up with a list of questions that looked kind of like this:

Who are the major scholars in this field? What journals publish the most (or the best) articles in this field? What are the dominant modes of writing about poetry? What are the main narratives that these scholars put forward and share as a group? How do their ideas relate to larger debates within Latin American Studies? To what extent is the field divided into national sub-fields (Peruvian poetry, Chilean poetry, Mexican poetry) or into critical industries devoted to major authors (Neruda, Vallejo, Paz)? Is it a field that doesn't know itself, in that scholars working on one part might not know poets from other national traditions? Is it valid to see Spanish American poetry and Spanish poetry as parts of a single, transatlantic tradition, as some have argued? Who would be in a position to make this kind of judgment? Are the Spanish American poets best known in Spain also those are best known in their own countries or across the continent as a whole?

How does the success of the Latin American novel beginning in the 60s effect the status of poetry? How about the dominance of cultural studies generally? What kind of dissertations have been written over the past 10 years in this field?


And so on. Even to be able to formulate a list of questions involves a certain amount of knowledge, or at the very least an approach to finding out more about the field.

Now suppose you aren't moving into a new field, but simply trying to stay abreast of your own. Now, instead of just a similar list of questions, you would have some answers too.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Pride and Humility

How much pride should you take in your work? I think there is nothing wrong with normal human emotions of satisfaction (I got an article accepted in a good journal), or self-confidence (I believe myself able to write a good article). If you read something you wrote some time ago and genuinely feel surprised at how good it is, that is an honest emotion too. Without positive emotions the work gets a lot harder to do.

On the other hand, thoughts like "I've reached a certain point in my career when I should have my articles accepted automatically," or "things I don't know about must not be that important" cross the line into arrogance. It should be easy to distinguish beneficial pride from an ugly sense of entitlement.

With humility, the same distinction applies. Helpful humble thoughts might be: "I would like to do some work in Latin American poetry, but I really have to do a lot of reading first." Or "So and so has a quality in her work that would like to emulate, but I am not at that level yet." Harmful humility takes the form of negative thoughts like "I'll never master this material."

Oddly enough, arrogance sometimes goes together with those destructive negative thoughts. In other words, the same person who might have unhelpful negative thoughts might also have an equally unhelpful cockiness. By the same token, there is no incompatibility between realistic thoughts of pride or confidence and a realistic acknowledgment of one's weaknesses.

The key is being grounded in reality, testing your beliefs about your ability by what you actually are able to accomplish. Entitlement and self-abasement are equally unattractive qualities, leading to the syndrome Fish examines in many of his essays.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Scholarly Self-Loathing

I have extraordinary contempt for most academic attitudes. They seem to me—this is in a way a touch of genius—simultaneously self-serving and self-defeating. They're self-defeating because they are designed finally to make sure that you never get or achieve what you say you want to achieve, and they're self-serving because in a way that failure is the goal which, when achieved, allows academics the platform of high and lofty complaint they so love to occupy.

Stanley Fish


This blog is really about not being self-sabotaging and self-serving all at the same time. My attitude is that one should value scholarship deeply and strive to do it at the highest level, rather than speaking of if as something contemptible that we only do for professional advancement. When you really think about professional advancement, its purpose is to allow you do do more scholarship.

I think the problem is worse in Department of English or other literatures where the fashionable attitude of denigrating literature has led to a strange paradox of people devoting their lives to something they claim not to care about that much. Someone said of the Duke English Dept once (Fish's old dept.) that it was a group of people united only by their common hatred of literature.

So an essentially elitist activity--the study of literature at the graduate level--has to be justified by its political utility, and this political utility derives from the fact that the elitism is a self-loathing one and thus serves the interests of the common man by implication. The fact that humanists are both privileged--to be able to do what they do at all--and underpaid (in relation to years of experience and education) allows for this cycle of self-defeating yet self-indulgent attitude.

Exercising the intelligence at the highest level and encouraging, teaching others to do the same needs no apology, no political alibi. It's simply a valuable thing to do and that's it. Making the object of study the works of John Coltrane, Mark Rothko, or Lorine Niedecker requires even less justification. Studying and preserving the most valuable products of the human intelligence, while doing no harm to any animals in the process. What could be more transparently beneficial than that?

Deliberative Practice in the Humanities

Deliberative practice is the kind that makes you improve in whatever activity you are engaged in. It is practicing smart, with a self-consciousness of what it will take to improve.

This kind of practice is easier to implement, however, in music or sports. In academic work, the activity itself seems much more diffuse, and it thus seems harder to define what "practice" would even mean. While I sometimes find myself using sports metaphors when thinking about my work, these have their natural limits.

At the same time, the diffuseness and complexity of scholarly writing make deliberateness all the more important. There are more elements to consider than in learning, say, to hit a ball with a stick, but we need to have that same kind of focus and concentration. I would argue even more so.

Cultivating Qualities

At various times of your professional life you'll be concentrated on cultivating certain qualities in your self. Tenacity or humor, erudition, flexibility. Maybe just dogged persistence. Right now the quality that I am most interested in is receptivity or disponibilidad, the ability to really hear what the text is saying, to be open to its music and tone. To not be closed off to as much, to as many styles. It's part of my general affection for acute self-awareness. I have to fight constantly against my own narcissism.

Anyway, the point here is to decide what particular qualities you want to cultivate and do so self-consciously.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Plans for the Blog / Introducing Bob Basil

This blog now has a third author, Bob Basil, an old grad school buddy of mine who is an editor and professor of writing and applied communications at Kwantlen University in Vancouver. My plan is to add additional co-authors to the blog gradually so as to offer other perspectives aside from my own. No one person has knowledge of all Stupid Motivational Tricks--I least of all. I have no concrete plans to add other authors right now, but it might happen in the future.

By Invitation Only

Most of the articles I've published in the decade of the 00s--2001-2010--, including four articles I have in press and 1 was invited to do just now, have been by submitted by invitation. Some of these have gone through some editorial process, but basically I have not had to submit articles cold to a journals very much at all. Even some of the articles I wrote in the first decade of my career were also by invitation. Nothing i've ever submitted this way has been rejected either.

Here's a couple of points: don't accept invitations to write articles you don't really want to write, that interrupt the flow of your main research projects. Don't write articles for reference books if you can help it.

On the other hand, accept all reputable invitations to write articles that you want to write anyway. The advantage is that these invitations have deadlines attached to them, and external deadlines are preferable to self-set ones that you can and will change yourself. The second advantage: you are likely to get accepted, as long as you do a creditable job. Nobody really wants to reject someone after inviting that someone to submit. If you agree with the person editing the book or special issue of the journal on your topic ahead of time, you won't be rejected for arbitrary reasons--like the fact that someone doesn't like your topic.

The drawback is that you might not get as rigorous an editorial process as in a cold submission. You'll have to take care of the quality yourself. Also, you have to first put yourself in a position to get invited, and to do that you have publish through cold, blind submission first. Finally, invitations tend to come in spurts--maybe 3 or 4 in one year and then nothing for a few years. You want to make sure they don't alter the rhythm of your writing. What I do is submit articles that I already have planned rather than depending on invitations for the impetus.

UPDATE; A few minutes after I wrote this post I got an invitation in my email for write another article.

Finitude, Part 1: Time

When I ask our master's students how much time they have to write their theses they often say seven months. When I ask researchers how much time they have to write a paper, they tell me their deadline (a conference submission deadline, a special issue deadline, etc.). My first challenge is to get them to think about how many weeks, how many days, and how many hours they have to work on the text in question.

Suppose you do have seven months to finish whatever you're working on. How many weeks is that? If you don't know the answer, you haven't thought seriously about how much time you have. Stupid trick: count the amount of weeks between now and your deadline. In this case, the answer is 30. Okay. How many of those weeks are you actually going to be working on this text? Stupid trick: cross out your vacation (in a seven month period there is usually some vacation time), and cross out any other week-long commitments like conferences or workshops.

Another stupid planning trick is to divide the period into three roughly equal blocks. In this case 10 weeks in the beginning, middle, and end. You will be doing different things in those periods and your attention will be focused in different ways. You will feel differently about the project and you may as well have those difference in mood in mind when planning.

Next question: how many days are there in a week? Stupid trick: cross out, in light pencil, the weekends. There are only five working days in a week. You should be planning to take your weekends off. Whenever you can't do this, it should be in the spirit of offering a half-day at a time to deal with some pressing emergency. Never believe that your job requires you never to take a day off. Plan to rest. The quality of your work will improve.

We can now move on to the hours in a day. The standard piece of advice is to keep yourself to half-days on any given kind of task. Never write for more than four hours, for example; in fact, try to keep it to three. With that in mind, divide your working day into two halves—roughly, 9-noon and 1-4. That's only six hours (with three for writing and three for other research-related tasks). Do you really have more time to actually work in a concentrated way on your seven-month project. Don't you have many other things to do, privately and professionally? You will have to eat and sleep and dress the kids for school. And teach. And write grant applications. And go to meetings and seminars. All this takes time—and energy. So don't plan to spend more than six hours a day on that long-term writing project.

In most cases, once your other obligations have been plotted into your calendar, you'll have only three hours to work on that project on a given day. In any given week, you may have only one hour on some days and six on others. Some weeks you won't work on the project at all (because you're at a conference, or teaching, or something else). The point is that those 30 weeks we started with will each give you between zero and 30 hours to actually devote to the text.

This sort of exercise is intended to give you a sense of the finitude of your project. It should also make your planning problems more concrete. You will approach your deadline one week at a time. But during each week you are devoting only a finite amount of hours, and intellectual energy, to the project. As each week begins, you know when those hours are.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Messy Desk as Self-Sabotage

I think the title of the post says it all. Imagine a clean desk on which there are materials only for the one task to be accomplished today. The cluttered desk clutters the mind itself.

I'm probably a bad offender here. The uncluttered desk is not something I've mastered, but something I'm now incorporating into my work habits.

'Shedding

'Shedding is woodshedding, the kind of lengthy and obsessive practice that musicians put in to get where they have to be.

I don't want to be the kind of motivational speaker who inspires a crowd to believe in itself and then disappears. Once the excitement of the inspirational speech fades, the audience is pretty much where it was before. Motivation is more in the daily grind of the woodshed more than in the single flashy performance. Academia is a brutally competitive profession, where enormous effort goes in to just getting the kind of job where scholarly writing is even possible. Don't "believe in yourself" in some abstract and meaningless way. Believe in the power of the shed.

Anyway, Modern Drummer magazine has regular a feature on drummers' sheds, their practice spaces. I'm not one who depends over much on having very well-appointed spaces, but the optimal organization of space and working materials can really make a difference for a lot of people. I think time takes precedence over space, because if you can allot a small amount of time to organize your work space and voilà.


***

Thomas in the post directly below talks about the relation of time, space, and stupidity. He really gets the principles I am outlining in this blog and makes direct use of them in his own writing and his coaching of other peoples' work. I have learned a lot from him and I think you will too.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Time, Space and Stupidity

First let me say that it's a thrill to be asked to contribute to the blog of such an exemplary scholar. I remember when Jonathan first started sharing his motivational tricks over at Bemsha Swing, and I always liked the, well, stupidity of them. As Jonathan explained,

Basically, you don't need to be particularly smart to follow them, and many might sound silly or very, very obvious. Also, many of the tricks discussed here will not be original with me. The idea is to take care of the mechanics of organizing time and space in order to free yourself to do your writing. Often times that will mean tricking yourself out of certain cognitive habits that are holding you back.
Indeed, most often the obstacles to writing, at least in an academic setting, are not all that deep. Too often we cultivate an illusion that something other than a lack of brute discipline and basic orderliness is holding us back. That illusion of philosophical depth, that famous "difficulty" of "the problem of writing", is a very formidable one. It can't always be dismissed with a simple call to order. But perhaps there is a way both to respect and to transcend some of our philosophical pretensions in that pregnant phrase "time and space". Let's see.

Gilles Deleuze begins his discussion of stupidity by pointing out that "Kant's idea of inner illusion, internal to reason, is radically different from the extrinsic mechanism of error" (Difference and Repetition, p. 150). When we are stupid we are not just making cognitive mistakes, not just engaging in errors of judgment. What we are doing is nothing less than "not thinking". What could that mean? Well, for Kant, really thinking, really applying concepts, meant subsuming experience under the transcendental categories of "pure reason", and the most transcendental categories of all are, of course, time and space.

But what if your time and your space is a horrible mess? What if you never have an hour to yourself to sit down an focus on your research? What if you have people coming in and out of your office at all hours of the day? (Or what if you don't even have an office?) What, in short, if you are yourself moving haphazardly through time and space? Well, then you can't think. You become subject, if you will, to an intrinsic mechanism of error. Frankly, you become stupid.

Now, to suggest that you would have to do something very intelligent to stop being stupid would be to beg the question. Fortunately, there are a number of sufficiently stupid tricks that can help you get your act together, to rise above the stultifying conditions that are famously making academic life miserable for everyone from freshmen to professors. Such tricks, of course, are only the seeds or spurs of new cognitive habits, new ways of thinking. Let's think of them (if we can) as stupid ways to transcend stupidity.


Jumping over the pond (ii) / inventory

I realized when I began to consider moving some of my research interests to Latin America that I was underestimating my knowledge of this field by comparing it to that of a specialist and even overestimating how much a specialist knows. After all, I even have gaps in my reading of peninsular poetry.

So here would be a good start on figuring out how much I really know. The first category would be poets whose work I know quite well, as well as poets that I've read but not worked on in my own field. The second would be poets that I have some knowledge of, but need to read more extensively. The third would be names that are mostly just names to me still.

(1)

Pablo Neruda
César Vallejo
José Lezama Lima
Octavio Paz
Eduardo Milán
Coral Bracho
Eugenio Montejo
José Barroeta
Blanca Varela
María Auxiliadora Álvarez
Borges

(2)

Oscar Hahn
Enrique Lihn
Rubén Darío
Nicolás Guillén
Enrique Adolfo Wesphalen
César Moro
Juan Gelman
Cisneros
Huerta
Rojas
Zurita
Peláez
Huidobro, etc...

Once I start to make the list I realize that 2 is a rather amorphous category and 3 even more so. The trick would be to move some figures in the first group to the category of "poets I have published on" and move some of the names in (2) up to (1).

What really makes someone a Latin Americanist, however, is a broad knowledge of the culture and history of regions (Andean, Southern Cone, Carribean, Central America) and / or nations (Mexico, Peru, Cuba, Argentina). I'm hoping that as I study poets I also deepen my knowledge of an entire continent, as well as a few archipielagos.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

9 to 5

Some people have success by treating the academic job like a 9-5 office job. You simply come to the office at 9 and leave at 5, teaching your classes when they are scheduled, going to meetings, and spending the rest of the time at your desk grading papers, preparing class, and writing your articles. This only works if you are actually working during those hours and actively schedule research time. Also, you must not limit your 9-5 schedule to the 15-week semester. You'll want to do this at least 45 or 50 weeks of the year, not 30.

The most common way of scheduling time in academia is the spill-over model, where you might not be working all of the working day, but you are also working until late at night, or most of the time over a weekend, etc... The disadvantage of this model is that you are never not supposed to be working, and yet you might not be organizing the hours very efficiently or keeping track of how much time you are spending.

My current schedule is to put in 10 or 11 hour days on T/R, work about 7-8 on Wednesdays, and sporadically the rest of the days in two or three hour segments. That seems to work out.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Reconciling spurts with the long haul

Like a lot of people, I am prone to spurts of energy and productivity--hours or days or weeks or months where I get a lot accomplished in comparison to the normal level of work. The secret of productivity, however, is in the long haul. If you depend only on the spurts, then you will never put together enough productive time to really get things accomplished. It's more than this: the organization of time over the long haul is what makes the spurts more likely to occur and hence more frequent. You can't just wait around until you feel a spurt coming along. It will arise naturally out of the course of a well-organized design of time.

They say "el vago trabaja doble." The lazy person works double, because doing things in a lazy way actually multiplies work by increasing the mental clutter. Waiting around for the time when you'll be hyper efficient and get everything done in a flash makes things more difficult.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Bailing

I had to bail on the NEH Summer Seminar grant. I simply didn't start the process early enough so I won't meet the deadline. I was overextended during the time I had to write it up and find the outside speakers.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Writing One Article a Year

Suppose you only had to write one article a year, but had an otherwise busy schedule, like a heavy teaching load or administrative duties? A lot of people just give up and decide do no research, but I think that I could design a plan by which anybody could write one article.

January: Before your semester starts, there are about two weeks. Your task is to come up with an idea for an article. No writing, no research, just an idea.

February-May: Just read. That's it. Just read things that are relevant to your article. Primary texts, secondary texts, theory, whatever it may be. Do this evenings, weekends, spring break, whenever. Treat your job except for research as an 8-5 job so that it doesn't spill over into the weekends and evenings. We aren't talking about reading a huge amount, even. Maybe a novel a month plus a few critical articles.

May-August: Write. Between when classes get out and when they start again, write a 6,000-word draft. You'll need to average about 60 words a day over a 90 day period.

September-December: Revise and submit.

Start the process over the next January, increasing efficiency by learning from your mistakes. Around April you might have to revise the article from the last year when it is rejected or provisionally accepted, so the May-August of the second year might be a little tougher.

Now the problem is that nobody really works this way, this systematically. Almost nobody can sustain a low level of effort on something over a whole year's time. Someone who hadn't done anything in a long time wouldn't have the scholarly base to even come up with an idea in two weeks. My point is that almost anyone could find the time to write an article in the course of one year with a little determination. And one article a year is respectable even in good research universities.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Jazz Will Make You Smart

I was listening to Bach's "Art of the Fugue" and began to think. Bach wrote that work to demonstrate how to write a fugue: it's a kind of musical treatise or textbook in which he writes a series of fugues on a simple theme. Other of his works have this "textbook" quality, like the "Well-Tempered Clavier." He is not only providing a learning tool for subsequent musicians, but also showing that the musical creative genius is a kind of student, someone who undertakes a systematic study of something to see how it all works.

Max Roach's body of work has that kind of quality too: he was known as an intellectual among bop musicians and I feel that studying his solos, really taking them apart, to be very rewarding. By listening to him we are also studying the work of a great student. We are getting into his thought processes.

Intelligence, in any field, is driven by the desire to discover the inner logic of things, how things work from the inside out. You feel this, for example, in looking at Picasso's numerous studies of Velásquez's great painting "La meninas." Education, even at the highest levels, tends to emphasize the acquisition of knowledge, but erudition is not intelligence. If you take an approach to learning that is oriented toward discovering how things work, you will acquire a lot of erudition along the way, but, more importantly, you will develop real intelligence, which I define as the capacity to draw connections within and between complex systems. In some sense the knowledge (erudition) is the easy part. For example, if you asked me analyze the rhythmic interactions between Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, and Red Garland in the Miles Davis quintet rhythm section, that would be very difficult. It would require a lot of close listening and analysis. But if I'm trying to do that then I already know who Miles's drummer was at the time.

Jazz provides a good opportunity to exercise this kind of intelligence because of its complexity and subtlety. Since jazz is already a complex musical style, and takes place as one part of a complex culture, then interpreting its place within culture involves relating two complex systems to each other.

Now I think you'll say that to this you have to be very, very intelligent. I agree to a certain extent, except that I would put it another way: the way to become intelligent is to do things like this.

This shouldn't really be a wholly new approach for you. I think good students figure this out for themselves eventually. Sometimes very intelligent students, however, don't really get it. They still think of education mostly as acquiring knowledge and doing well in classes rather than trying to figure out the secret logic of things.

(As seen on "Writing jazz")

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tabatha's Salon Invasion

There's this rather stupid reality show in which an Australian woman takes over a hair salon run, usually, by unintelligent-seeming and barely competent Americans, and attempts to set things aright. I think this show is stupid, though, in the way that Stupid Motivational Tricks is stupid. In other words, there's an intelligence running underneath it all. What I like is that she looks at everything, from the furniture to hygiene to the quality of the work itself. Though I have no interest at all in hair cutting, I find I take away quite a bit from this absolutely inane program. Every detail is important. There is a total system that makes good work possible, and the quality of the work must be judged in the context of how, when, and where it takes place.

High Modernism as a Scholarly Practice

I have to remind myself constantly that high modernism is the canon and thus my sense of it as embattled is somewhat deceptive.

In other words, Paz, Lezama Lima, Valente, etc... occupy a prestigious place in literary culture. Or Wallace Stevens, say, to give an English-language example. Now the problem is that in the contemporary university, cultural studies has largely displaced that canon, especially in Latin American studies--but also to some degree in the peninsular (Iberian peninsular, that is) realm. The typical argument in Latin American studies would have a very clear political "take away." I heard a colleague of mine at a candidate's job talk the other day suggest that any emphasis on literature as an aesthetic phenomenon would automatically alienate students, have them view literature as something alien to their own lives--as though their own lives had no aesthetic component at all.

So yes, I work on the boring old canonical stuff, leaving me holding the conservative end of the stick. I believe, though, that reading this stuff--really difficult modernist poetry--makes you frightfully intelligent. It really just uses all of your brain at the highest level of literacy imaginable. To really get this kind of poetry, you have to have a highly developed cultural, musical, visual, verbal, problem-solving, connection-making intelligence. But the only way to get that is to read it. In other words, nobody has it before approaching this kind of poetry.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

New Year's in February

Now I'm thinking of re-defining the new years resolution to focus on Peruvian poetry, rather than on Latin American poetry generally. (That would be more of a lifetime goal than a yearly one.) If I know Peruvian poetry well, then that, combined with my more superficial knowledge of other national traditions and extensive knowledge of some canonical figures, will make me fairly well read in Spanish American poetry.

The two poets I know from Peru are Vallejo and Varela, with superficial knowledge of Westphalen, Cisneros, and a few others. I'm obviously not going to a great expert in one year, but I could probably become as knowledgeable, say, as a Latin Americanist who is is not specializing in Peru.

Contexts and Frames

All good scholarly arguments, at least in the kind of work I do, are contextual. The context, however, is never simply given: it is a frame that the scholar must construct.

A paragraph at the beginning of a paper giving a summary of the author's life, or some sociopolitical information, is not good contextual framing--if what follow has no relation to this information.

A little better would be an argument that relates the context to the analysis of texts using a kind of one-to-one correspondence. Here the context enters the argument rather than remaining apart from it, but the argument itself remains simplistic.

The next step might be crafting a more subtle or surprising argument, constructing the context as a frame for the argument rather than as something simply provided by the available information. After a certain point in literary criticism it is assumed anyone can do a close reading of something; the trick is making this reading meaningful. Close readings that aren't connected to larger arguments just sort of sit there on the page inertly. The trick is relating the reading convincingly to a meaningful context.

In graduate students I like to see the arguments that are interesting but not yet convincing. This shows that the student is stretching a bit, getting the idea of what needs to be doing and maybe trying a little too hard.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Jumping over the pond

I've decided to begin (tentatively) defining myself as a specialist in Latin American poetry as well as "peninsular" poetry. I can't really back up that claim yet, because I'm lacking publications in this field. Nevertheless, I've taught this poetry at the undergraduate and graduate level. I've even directed a dissertation on it. I've probably read enough over the years so that my knowledge adds up to something substantial, if unsystematic, and my next book will have a substantial chapter on Latin American poetry in its relation to Spanish poetry. My sixth book will be on Lat Am poetry (maybe).

What is mildly interesting here, for me, is that I've always had this interest but never thought it added up to much. The separation between peninsular and Latin American is so strong academically, that the obligation to define oneself as one or the other and stay on one side of the divide has had a distorting effect on my own professional identity--despite the recent trendiness of "transatlantic" approaches.

The first thing to do is to survey my own knowledge, in breadth and depth. I know a bit about the canon: Neruda, Vallejo, Huidobro, Lezama Lima, Paz, Borges, Guillén. I know something about Mexican poetry, and Cuban, Chilean, and Peruvian, and Venezuelan. There are individual poets in all these traditions I know pretty well, and others I know superficially. I have some gaps in reading, but even a specialist might have some gaps: nobody knows everything equally well.

Next, I should probably figure out who the main specialists are in the US academy and elsewhere and read some criticism. I know some names, but there are probably others I don't know.

After that, establish a toe-hold: a conference presentation, an article, a chapter in a book. Figure out where my distinctive contribution will be and become very, very good right there, in a small but significant corner of the field.

The goal is to be a specialist in modern Hispanic poetry irrespective of whether this poetry is Mexican, Cuban, or Spanish.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Exploiting very short and very long windows of time

Sometimes you'll only have 10 minutes to work on something. There should be a way of learning to turn on some intense concentration and getting something done. Don't say, "it's only 10 minutes so what could I do?"

On the other hand, there might be a fairly large window, like a national holiday on which you are snowed in and alone with your computer.

Windows of different size might have different functions, calling for different strategies. You shouldn't limit yourself to the standard sizes of 1-4 hours.

Estimating Time

Estimating the time a particular task will take is difficult. I tend to overestimate in the short term, thinking, say that a half-hour task will take me an hour and a half. On the other hand, I think I can finish a book by the end of 2010 while maybe more realistically it will be the middle of 2011.

There is a danger in overestimating, which is that we might procrastinate more if we don't think we have time now to address a particular task. If we had a more realistic idea we might just do it now. People also procrastinate by underestimating: "That will only take me 15 minutes so I can wait to the last minute." In other words, both the sense of dread at the enormousness of the task or an underestimation can lead to the same result: procrastination. Either way, it is important to make sure that, even if we don't estimate correctly down to the minute, it doesn't get us into trouble. For example, we might devote 15 minutes to simply beginning the task and seeing how easy or fast it's going to go.

Can you be too organized?

Usually not. Only if the organization reaches such obsessive-compulsive disorder levels that it is an obstacle rather than a help. You can still mess around and improvise and be well-organized.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

How People Really Think

I'm not sure what I mean by this phrase. What is the way that people really think about things, deep down, as opposed to what they claim to think? For example, most people might claim to think that canonical authors are just there, in the canon, for completely contingent and arbitrary reasons, and that in theory everything is equally valuable. Yet try to explain your work on a non-canonical author and there is quite an effort to be made justifying such an enterprise at all! You must prove that your author is worth studying, important in some way, and it's a hard sell.

People claim to value complexity, but they really like simplistic thinking deep down. They are more sentimental than they claim, more apt to substitute proxy values for more substantive ones, more attached to idiosyncratic shibboleths and fetishes, along with collective idées reçcues.

By "people" here I mean academics. The connection between this and SMT is that you have to constantly anticipate the way people really think, because that will determine how they will react to your work.

The Detailed Plan

You should have a detailed plan of when you will finish the book-length project that you are always writing. Basically, this is a list of chapters with dates of completion. There is no way that you will actually follow the plan in its first incarnation. Instead, you will be constantly revisiting it, changing dates backwards and forwards, realizing that c must be written before b, or f before e, that g took you less time than you anticipated. I'm always revising my plan, especially at the early stages when the identity and order of chapters is much more fluid. Today, for example, I shifted the focus of an unwritten chapter and that threw the order of everything else out of whack. I had to find a way of keeping the Lorca chapters together even though the argument places Lorca at several separate places in the book. I came up with a new plan, which is more or less this:

Preface (Finished January 1)
Acknowledgements
1. The Paradoxes of Spanish Intellectual History (March. 30)
2. Zambrano, Valente, and Counter-Reformation Poetics (Begun. Finish by April 30)
3. Play and Theory of Lorca’s Duende: Nation and Performance (June 30)
4. Lorca and Contemporary Spanish Poetry: Absence and Presence (Oct. 30)
5. The Persistence of Memory: Antonio Gamoneda and the Late Modernist Habitus (finished)
6. Las ínsulas extrañas: The Latin American Connection (Aug. 30)
Apocryphal Postscript (Nov. 30)
Bibliography

Final ms.: Dec. 31, 2010.

It's probably not going to happen this way. I'm sure it's overambitious. On the other hand, allowing too much time for each chapter is not advisable at this point.

To Do List

The To Do List should only include important, significant tasks. You might keep another daily list for picking up the dry cleaning or checking a particular book out of the library, but you should have one list that includes only things that are really major. You don't want to give yourself the false impression that you've been hugely productive just for having done a lot of littler things. Here's mine for Feb. / March, with an asterisk denoting completion. Items are listed in order of when I'd like to get them done or firm deadlines that can't be missed. You'll notice that there are four grant applications here. I'm investing some time in that rather than writing the project itself.

I spend some time virtually every day working on the list itself. In other words, re-ordering, prioritizing, adding items, striking through things I've already done, and figuring out easier components of these items that I can take care of earlier than expected. For example, an abstract for the MACHL conference could be done this weekend or even between classes tomorrow, even though the deadline is not impendingly urgent. The time spent on the list is not wasted, because it motivates me to get things done a bit earlier. It's a bit like packing a suitcase more efficiently by placing small items in outside compartments.

Annual Performance Evaluation.*

Spain trip.*

GRF: write*

GRF: print* and submit by Feb. 4

Final revisions for Ullán article.

NEH Seminar application

(First draft completed and sent to NEH, January 20*)

Submit abstract for MACHL conference by end of February

March 5: International Travel Grant Deadline

1st Chapter of Modernism book: March 30, self-imposed deadline

Cultural cooperation grant. April 1

Primary Texts

The return to primary texts is always refreshing, when I have been away from them for a while. The one thing that makes the biggest difference in a literary critic is how much really good reading has taken place--having read, and read well, a lot of the primary works.

Think of it this way: you could gain a kind of instant expertise simply by reading every significant work by a major author over the course of a month or two, and ignoring the secondary literature altogether. This is a valuable shortcut, since the secondary texts are going to make for much less efficient and rewarding reading.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

From the Inside Out

After my PhD, I might have been an expert on the one author on whom I wrote my dissertation: Claudio Rodríguez. Since he wasn't yet considered a major author, I was a specialist in a very minor-seeming thing. After some more articles and my second, book, I was maybe an expert on modern and contemporary Spanish poetry. Still maybe a specialized sub-field, but a little broader and to this date my principal professional identity.

My aim for a long time has been to expand my areas of expertise from the inside out. The Lorca book gave me specialist credentials in contemporary American poetry and Comp Lit, maybe on translation theory... Now I'm moving more in the direction of intellectual history, and also writing a chapter in my coming book on Latin American poetry. I'm teaching a course on jazz.... All of a sudden (in other words, over the course of 30 years) I have gone from being very narrow to being relatively broad. Of course, some of these things are long standing interests. It just took a while to write about all the things I was interested in.

There's a lesson here. Be a specialist first and then expand the area in which you're a specialist in a coherent way. Go from being a narrow specialist to being a broad specialist, one who knows a lot about a significant chunk of something. I still don't see the point in being a generalist instead of a specialist, because a good specialist will eventually acquire a lot of knowledge as sh/e expands the terrain of specialization.

Native Speaker

You may or may not be a native speaker of your discipline. If an Ancient Sumerian showed up at the department of archeology, the field might be revolutionized: imagine the elementary errors that would disappear.

Thinking Like a Poet

If you are a literary critic, then you have an edge in scholarly writing because you are already highly attuned to writing. Your specialty is taking apart texts to see how they work. If you are a specialist in poetry, then you can explain every detail of writing at the highest level--a poem by Lorine Niedecker, say. Your own writing will never be that good, but at least you understand the principles involved.

I don't really trust a literary critic who can't write or a geometer with a shaky hand. (A cartographer who gets lost on the way to the mall.) Such a critic has not learned to think like a poet.