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Saturday, April 30, 2011


Arrogance is perceived as a negative quality because it is associated with
A lack of courtesy to others.
The possibility that arrogance is a cover for insecurities.
A lack of self-awareness. I could be arrogant because I have a PhD, but everyone I work with does too!
Narcissism. Excessive self-involvement.
A lack of intellectual humility. An arrogant person cannot recognize that s/he may be wrong.

Yet some quality resembling arrogance is also necessary for the following reasons:
Confidence. You have to project a sense of confidence, that you know what you are talking about. Making apologies for oneself or being too self-deprecating can backfire. I remember dumbshit students taking my profession of ignorance about something at face value. I've seen people apologize first, then give a bad presentation. When you say, "I don't have these ideas very well developed yet," and you really don't, then people will be sitting there thinking, "You are right, you don't."
Honesty about one's capabilities and accomplishments. Look at your cv as though it belonged to somebody else. If you are impressed by what you see, then you should be impressed with yourself.
Ambition. It is hard to be ambitious if you are too afraid of being arrogant.

Also, you have to distrust the motives of people who call you arrogant. Are they jealous? Are they trying to hold you back or put you down? When I published in Insula as an Assistant Professor, a senior colleague, instead of congratulating me and encouraging me to take legitimate pride, made a snarky remark about my "swelled head."

So narcissism and rudeness, bad. Ambition, legitimate pride in real accomplishments, good. False humility and apologetic discourse, bad. Intellectual humility about being wrong, good.

K State

If you want to look at job placement from another angle, you could look at the Spanish department of Kansas State. They have an excellent department with several people I know, and four of their faculty members got their doctorate at the institution where I teach, the University of Kansas. Others come from Purdue, Arizona State, and the University of Texas at Austin. At a school like this, with a different character from KU, there is a stronger regional character, with fewer PhDs from California or the East Coast. If your goal was to teach in K State, your best bet would be to get a PhD a few hundred miles away, at KU, not at Harvard or Yale, Berkeley or Stanford.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A great post on

time management.
Time management is not simply about being more productive; it is about deciding in advance how to make the most of our most valuable resource: time. When I plan my week, I include time to take long walks, to exercise, to have lunch with my husband, to pick up my children early from school, and to prepare home-cooked meals for myself and my family. I am convinced that, without time management, I would not find the time to do things that I think are important for my emotional and physical health.

A Research Plan for Summer

If you are an academic, then you will be looking forward to the summer. Either your semester or quarter has just ended, or it will end fairly soon. The paradox of the summer is that it is an opportunity for more research and writing, but also a time when mental exhaustion calls for some relief in the form of a vacation. You want to make progress on your research, especially if it is difficult to do so during a normal semester, but the more harried you are teaching, the more you need a break. Here are some points to be kept in mind:

(1) You need to make the transition from structured time, built around classes and meeting, and unstructured time with its own set of problems. Unstructured summer time needs to be just as structured as time spent between classes.

(2) You need to travel or spend at least some time away from where you normally are, whether for research or vacation. The mental distance of being somewhere else is invaluable.

(3) You need to take some actual vacation time, even if it is only a week or so. Preferably some right after classes are out, and some more right before classes resume in the Fall. I like to shut off the computer during a vacation, only checking email once a day.

(4) Work on the scholarly base, not just on what you have to write. Read some novels in Italian or Portuguese if those aren't your main languages. Good ideas come from lateral connections outside one's own area of expertise. Work on the happiness base too, while you're at it.

(5) If you are graduate student or untenured, make substantial progress on your research. Write one complete article or chapter from start to finish, or a major revision of a dissertation.

(6) Whatever you decide to do, make a written plan at the beginning of the summer, including not only work but also play and non-work obligations. Having a more structured plan actually gives you more freedom and autonomy than just waking up each day and deciding what you will do.

My plans include being in a dissertation defense in July for another university (Santiago de Compostela), driving my daughter to North Carolina for a music camp, maybe working on the book version of SMT, getting my consulting business going, and writing at least one chapter of the book.


Last night the thesis of a chapter occurred to me all at once. I had the two parts of it already, separately, but somehow I had not put these thoughts together. It was one of those "aha" moments. I realized that this thesis, the main idea of this chapter, is also the main idea of the book itself, or at least a version of it.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Cultural Literacy (iii)

I'm thinking of teaching a course in cultural literacy for the University Scholars Program outside my department (if they'll have me.). I have to think quickly about what I want to do. I think this would a natural place to develop my earlier ideas about what anybody ought to know.

Feel free to give me your suggestions. So far all I have is the phrase "cultural literacy" and the idea of working with Bourdieu.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Scholarly Self-Fashioning

My image of myself, of what I am doing as a scholar, has shifted gradually over the years. I once saw myself as the hot-shot, hyper-theoretical Young Turk. Now I am more the old-fogey, old-school Comparative Literature professor. Between these two phases, I saw myself as the person with the deepest possible insight into poetry, aspiring to be the greatest possible reader. Sometimes I've wanted to see myself as the consummate specialist in my particular subfield. Other identities I've tried on include the "poet-critic" and the high-modernist.

I mention these overlapping or partially contradictory identities because it might be strategic to define oneself in a particular way, but it is also helpful to question one's own identity from time to time. What benefit do we get from thinking of ourselves in a category like those I've described? If you call yourself a professor-activist, a cultural critic, or an interdisciplinary scholar, what does that mean for you?

(I borrow the word "self-fashioning" from Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What My Colleagues Specialize In

So you want to get a job. You can specialize in the areas where the most jobs are, or you can do the field that interests you the most and not worry about the job market.

Another way of looking at this, though, is that the most number of jobs are in the most crowded fields, so that in Modern Latin American, for example, you have to beat out 200 other applicants for any given job. Now, obviously, if you are a truly qualified applicant, then your chances are better than .5%, but still...

The second point is that many SLAC jobs do not require extreme specialization. What matters there is not the exact nature of the research, but the ability to teach a variety of courses. The smaller the department, the greater the value of of a generalist. You want to be able to teach beyond your dissertation in any kind of institution.

My colleagues line up approximately like this

Medieval (1)
Early Modern Peninsular (2)
19th Century Peninsular (1)
Modern Peninsular (2)

Colonial Latin American (1)
19th Century and Modern Latin American (6)

Linguistics (2)

The Discipline of Checking In

I failed to meet my goal for the writing group this week for the first time. What really matters, though, is the discipline of checking in every week, even when the goal is not met. Staying in the game. Averaged out over the year, a few unmet goals really don't matter very much. I could probably miss my goal 10% of the time, or 5 times in 52 weeks, and still have an amazingly productive year.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Where My Colleagues Got their PhD

It might be interesting to look at where my colleagues studied, to see where someone can end up after graduate school. This information is public on our web page so I am not speaking out of school here.

KU. (Ok, that's unusual, to work where you yourself got a PhD. That's exceptional.)

U of Wisconsin, Madison. (2) A good state university.

Indiana. (2) Another excellent "Big 10" School.

Cornell. Ivy League.

Pittsburgh. A good university with an exceptionally strong history in Latin American literature.

U of California, San Diego (2).

Yale. Another Ivy.

Stanford. (That's me.)

UC Santa Barbara. That's three total from the UC system.

Illinois. A fifth big-ten graduate.

Texas (2).

Gronigen (Netherlands).

So we could say that if you wanted to end up at KU, you would do well to study in California at a good UC system or at a good big-10 school. If you looked at where our graduates are going, you would find a larger variety of schools, since everyone gets their PhD at a research university (almost by definition) and not every graduate of a research institution ends up at one. Thus the general trend is downward, in terms of prestige: some people move more or less laterally, from a Michigan to an Indiana, or from a Wisconsin to an Illinois, but many students end up at a SLAC, a regional comprehensive MA-granting school, or elsewhere off the tenure track completely. The Ivy-league mostly hires only Ivy-leaguers or those from the best private and the very best public institutions, but the Ivy League cannot hire more than a small fraction of its own graduates, since those departments tend to be small anyway.


Academia is a toxic environment in many ways. You can love the work (as I do), teaching and research, without loving the environment itself. Ironically, one thing that makes it toxic is the presence of academics, people who should be devoted to the work itself. Even those devoted to the work, and with good intentions, have insecurities and neuroses to such a degree that the presence of so many in one place creates a kind of toxic overload.

One source of problems is the presence of overt political agendas, whether conservative or radical. A political agenda makes an atmosphere toxic by confusing real politics with symbolic, merely academic politics.

Another source is institutional structure and ethos. A wealthy institution like Princeton can be toxic (see the Calvo case), as much a resource-poor state institution.

My institution and department is relatively free of these toxins.

Assistant Professor Woes

Although I came to hate academic Marxists through my experiences at Stanford, my first tenure track job was at a place dominated by conservative Spanish men. We had nickname for them: "@^$@%." It was a conflictive department, and I was a conflictive person. I should have handled some things differently. My solution was to fight back and to publish like hell. My second book appeared in print about the time I got tenure there. I published in Hispanic Review, PMLA, Insula, MLN. A year later, I left and came to Kansas with tenure.

Graduate School Woes

I went to school at Stanford, completing a PhD in Comparative Literature. I had a miserable time in Graduate School for many reasons.

Coming from a less prestigious school as an undergraduate student, I was shocked by the low quality of the pedagogy. Professors would often have no syllabus for their course, or teach in an utterly passive way, allowing the inmates to run the asylum. In the Comparative Literature program, we were required to take a course in Literary Theory the first semester. This was taught by a Heideggerian who said nothing comprehensible during the entire quarter and exercised little leadership. The class was run, essentially, by a small vocal group of Marxist graduate students from another program, Modern Thought and Literature.

I was in a Comp Lit program, but I wanted to be a Hispanist. The Spanish department when I was there was a disaster and I was able to complete my degree only because they eventually hired someone in my field, after I was physically gone from Stanford, and he was nice enough to direct my dissertation even though he didn't really know me.

The Spanish department was run by a group of Marxists who didn't believe peninsular literature should be taught at all. One, a woman from England, did not even know how to speak Spanish, even though she was (and remains) a prominent Latin Americanist. Her ally was another vicious Marxist who is also quite well known in the field. When she became president of the MLA a few years ago, I quit the organization for a few years in disgust. Another man there was a Chlean exile writer who would often just not show up to class. These people made me into a peninsularist. Many students in the Spanish program were intellectually inferior, chosen because of their political affiliations. The department hired a very good Cervantes scholar, who eventually left because he was treated so badly by the Marxist crowd. The department depended too heavily on visiting professors, some of whom were complete disasters.

Despite all these problems, I was exposed to some brilliant minds and managed to navigate the program and receive my degree by working independently. I learned what I could from the people that had something to say, and taught myself the rest.

I remember walking around and wondering whether I was "brilliant" or not. The ethos there in Comp Lit was to try to get noticed by powerful people who might call you "brilliant." If you weren't brilliant, you were nothing. Yet in Spanish some of the graduate students were not only not brilliant, but almost cognitively disabled. For a young, immature person like myself, this was a toxic atmosphere.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

How To Choose a PhD Program in Spanish

Because some other bloggers have addressed this I thought I would too. Spanish and Latin American literature or 2nd-language acquisition with an emphasis in Spanish are fields where you can still get a tenure-track job. Virtually all of our students at Kansas, for example, have gotten such jobs. Everyone who is really, really good, and some that are a little less than stellar, have gotten jobs. Academia is a still a brutally competitive domain whatever your field, but in Spanish, at least, you have a reasonable chance of getting a job if you are good and geographically mobile.

(1) Look for specific people you want to work with. Preferably a program with at least two people you would consider working with. The program in the abstract means nothing if the best people there are in the wrong fields for you, or if the excellent ones (on paper) in the right field turn out to be jerks.

(2) Consider fields beyond the "default." You might think that you want to do Latin American narrative, because that's all that you've really been exposed to. Think in terms of other genres, poetry and drama, or centuries earlier than the 20th. You don't want to be just another specialist in the the contemporary narrative and film of the Southern Cone region, unless you think you can rise to the top of that very crowded field.

(3) As the other blog said, beware the Ivies. The problem with Ivy-league programs in Spanish is that they are very small (in number of faculty) and hence unstable. Think of the difference between a program with 5 faculty members, and one with 15. With 5 major professors, if two are fighting with each other, then your committee possibilities are slim. Also, Ivy-league professors aren't always the best mentors, because they don't feel they need to tell their students how to write cover-letter, construct cv's, etc...

(4) Look for the total package. Financial support. Good faculty willing to mentor. A department that has a track-record in placing people in jobs.

I was miserable in Graduate School because I did not choose wisely. I still came out ok, but that was despite my program, not because of it. Some day I tell that tale.

Friday, April 22, 2011

How to Write an Undergraduate Spanish Paper

[This post will replace the one I wrote more rapidly a few days a go on the same subject.]

1. What you are being asked to do is very difficult. Produce college-level writing in Spanish. Think of what you are asked to do in a course in another department. You would probably be embarrassed to turn in a paper with a grammatical or vocabulary mistake in every other sentence, or with a very low level of intellectual content. Writing in Spanish, you still need to produce college-level work, so you need to remember everything you ever knew about academic writing. If you are already a good writer in English, then you need to transfer those skills to the new language. Principles of organization and rhetoric or not fundamentally different between the two languages. For example, you probably know that you wouldn't start a paragraph with "Also..." in English. So why would you start with "También..." in Spanish? That's a weak transition. If you aren't a good writer in English, you are in trouble, because then you have to learn composition at the same time as you struggle to master a foreign language. Write well-developed paragraphs of about 5-6 sentences each, with topic sentences in each paragraph that all support the main thesis statement of the paper.

Because of your language skills, you might unconsciously dumb down the content of your paper. Your sentences might be too short, your vocabulary limited. Don't let poor language skills make you seem less intelligent than you are. Avoid grandiose or obvious statements. "Lorca is a famous writer." When doing a compare and contrast, don't say "There are many similarities and many differences."

2. Read the instructions. Figure out what the professor wants from the paper. It is likely she doesn't want her own ideas from class parroted back.

3. Do not translate your ideas into Spanish. Before you begin writing for the day, look at some authentic Spanish academic writing to get a feel for what your style should be. Borrow some frequently used phrases like "Sin lugar a dudas" or "Así las cosas." A frequent source of unclear writing is the literal translation of phrases that made sense in English but produce garbled Spanish.

4. What did the Spanish language ever do to you? Why are you mistreating it so? Now is not the time to forget elementary grammar. To say "like this" you just need "así," not "como así." "As much" is not "tan mucho" but "tanto." Don't make verbs reflexive or subjunctive in a random way. Distinguish between parts of speech. "Mágico (magic, adj), "magia" (noun). Use technical terminology correctly. Never use the word "cuento" unless you mean the literary genre of a short-story or short oral tale. Look at the corrections of previous Spanish papers you have written, in this class or previous ones. Chances are you are making the same mistakes over and over again. Don't make grammatical mistakes in the title of the paper.

5. Choose quotes carefully. Don't use the quote the professor analyzed in class to make his main point. When you do quote from a text, use the quote rather than merely quoting it. For example, with a long block-quote that occupies a quarter of a page, you need to point out some relevant details after the quotation, not just have it sit there using up space.

6. The good news is that the professor is likely to be more tolerant of some level of grammatical mistakes than a professor in another department. The professor does not expect perfection. A few errors in the use of the subjunctive will not make an A paper into a B-. Really basic mistakes tend to produce more anger than more subtle ones.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

How to Lead a Discussion

It is hard to lead a good discussion. I realize I don't always do it well myself in the heat of the moment, but I think I know something about how to do it.

Avoid yes / no questions. You want your students to talk, not just say yes or or no.

Don't be afraid of easy questions, especially early in the discussion. Ask for a character's name. How old do you think a character is? How do we know this? By the same token, avoid question with too many complicated parts to keep in one's mind. I find that students often lose track of the question if it is overly complicated.

Ask weak students easier questions to get them involved.

Move on if a question is not working. If you have to re-explain a question, substitute an easier (simplified) version of the same.

If you really want the students to discuss a particular thing, then you might have to ask similar questions that get at the question from different angles. After a while, though, it is time to move on to another topic.

Let several students try to answer the same question, or respond to one another. In a really great discussion the professor is often saying less and less.

Observe a student's body language and facial expressions. You can often tell if they have something to say. If students look disengaged you can call on them too, in order to bring them back (or make that attempt).

Rephrase the student's answer if you think other students have not understood. If you don't understand an answer, it is find to let the student try again. If the student gives a really good answer, you don't always have to say anything about it, if you think others have understood too. On the other hand, if a student has made a brilliant point and others have not heard, it might bear repeating. Once in a while the professor can summarize the general drift of the discussion in a succinct way.

The purpose of discussion is multiple. The professor is giving students a chance to contribute to the course, to teach one another, to practice their Spanish (or their oral skill in English or whatever language the course is given in). The professor is seeing how well the material is working with the class, how engaging it is, whether they are able to understand it. The students are learning how to hold their own in a discussion, how to relate to others in an academic setting. The class is bonding together as a group, creating a unique and memorable experience unlike any other class.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How to Write a Paper for Your Spanish Class

(1) Read the instructions. Does the professor want something specific? Are there special rules she wants you to follow? If the instructions are minimal, follow the MLA handbook and assume that the professor wants a standard literary analysis.

(2) Read the instructions again after your finish the paper. While writing your paper you may have forgotten them.

(3) Make most of your paragraphs around 5-7 sentences. Each paragraph should develop a single idea. Follow all the composition rule you learned in your English composition class, even though you are writing in Spanish. Your paper should have one central idea or thesis.

(4) Don't repeat the ideas that the professor explained in class. A paper is not a test of whether you were listening in class, but an opportunity to do more with the material. Don't choose as the crowning example of your thesis an idea that the professor analyzed in class for 20 minutes. Those are HIS ideas.

(5) Call books and authors by their proper titles and names. Remember that the name of an author for most purposes is both last names. You say "García Márquez," not "Márquez." "Vargas Llosa," not "Llosa." The exceptions are Lorca and Galdós, who can be called by their maternal surname alone. Don't call a woman writer "el autor," or assume that her book is narrated by a man as the default ("el narrador'). Capitalize books, put chapters or titles of poems or short-stories in quotation marks.

(6) Under penalty of a year's imprisonment or $10,000 fine, never call a novel, a play, or a poem a "cuento."

(7) If you have an extensive block-quote, do something with it. Don't just have it occupy space. Choosing really good quotes from a book you have read and making good use of them is very impressive, because few students think to even try doing it.

(8) Take care of the little stuff. Just because you are in an advanced course does not mean that you can forget first-year grammar. There are things that are never done in Spanish, like using the verb ser with a present participle or estar as a copulative between two nouns. The more basic your mistake, the angrier your professor is going to be. Don't make verbs randomly reflexive when there is no need for a reflexive, or randomly subjunctive in a main clause. If all you do is fail to use the subjunctive, and there are no other errors of grammar or usage, the professor will probably be overjoyed. Then all she has to do is have you learn one thing. Conjugate the damned verbs.

(9) Don't translate. Don't think your thoughts in English and then write them down in English. Before you write, read something in Spanish for half an hour to get your brain thinking directly in Spanish. You can take mental notes of certain idiomatic phrases used in scholarly writing and use them in your own paper. "Así las cosas..." Or "Sin lugar a dudas..." These phrases make your writing seem more native, less like a student translating badly from the English.

(10) Don't depend on outside sources if it's not supposed to be a research paper. If you do consult sources, use them minimally, to support your own ideas, and be scrupulous about citation. Never cite Wikipedia.

(11) Read the instructions.

(12) Spanish style tends to use longer sentences. You don't want your style to be choppy. Like this. Vary sentence length, without writing excessively long sentences either. Since your vocabulary is limited in Spanish, you'll have to be even more careful about using the same words over and over again. "demuestra que..." "demuestra que..." If the same word is used five or six times in a paragraph or page, the effect is monotony.

(13) You are in college. Your work still has to reflect a college-level intellectual level, even though your are writing in Spanish. You need to avoid the effect of "regression," where your ideas seem too simplistic because of your language ability. You are being asked to do something quite difficult: college-level writing in a foreign language.

(14) Ask the professor for help. We assume you know how to write a paper already, so we sometimes don't give detailed instructions about how to avoid all these pitfalls. Some instructors have particular things they want and they may not be adept at communicating these expectations. Clarify if there is anything you don't understand about an assignment.

Split Infinitive

This post from Language Log has the inside dirt on the so-called split infinitive. Here's the money quote:
The misnamed "split infinitive" construction, where a modifier is placed immediately before the verb of an infinitival complement, has never been ungrammatical at any stage in the history of English, and no confident writer of English prose has any problems with it at all. (As the grammarian George O. Curme pointed out in 1930, it's actually the minor writers and nervous nellies, the easily intimidated, who seem to worry about it.)

This is not even a descriptivist vs. prescriptivist issue, because most reputable guidebooks about language agree with Pullum's reasonable position on the matter. The prejudice against this construction only emerged in the mid 19th century and was never a grammatical rule before that.

The problem is not whether to split an infinitive or not, in my opinion, but whether to place too much emphasis on this kind of shibboleth, as though good writing were mostly a matter of observing arbitrary zombie rules. It could be said that certain concepts like the split infinitive actually serve the purpose of the shibboleth better than real grammar rules do, since they are harder to observe consistently (to consistently observe).

In the biblical story from which the word "shibboleth" derives, people were killed based on their inability to pronounce a certain phoneme. The purpose of a linguistic shibboleth is to exclude people who don't observe certain niceties.

If you disagree with me, go argue with Geof Pullum. I have no interest in debating this point with anyone.

How To...

For my wildly popular series of "how to..." I am accepting suggestions. What would you like me to give instructions for? I say wildly popular because those posts seem to get the most hits. I think it's because people google "how to..." in search of basic instructions on how to do things.

How to Give Feedback on a Grant Application

Grant and fellowship applications are the most difficult thing to write. It is easier to do the actual scholarship, in many cases. I spent a few hours last night helping out someone with one of those, as a favor (though I will also do it for a stranger for a fee). Here's how I approach this kind of task.

The most difficult thing is to address a broad audience. In our scholarship we address other experts, but for a fellowship we need to emphasize the significance of the project, why anyone outside the narrow sub-speciality should care. Part of my task, then, is to help the person clarify specialized terms. Some people make a ritual gesture in saying that their work will be of interest to those in Comparative Literature, Sociology, disability studies.... In other words, they make a list of fields that are tangentially related to their project. This does not work unless there is a specific link articulated to one of these fields. For example, just because your work deals with performance does not mean that those in performance studies will be interested. You have to say what contribution you are making to this other sub-discipline. For example, you could make the argument that disability studies has never considered the influence of a certain cultural dynamic that your work brings out.

I've often said that people think of themselves as more anti-canonical than they really are. To write about obscure writers requires extra justification. And by obscure, I mean almost any writer at all aside from the few supercanonical ones. Nothing is supercanonical in my field except maybe Borges, Cervantes, and Lorca, and maybe a few boom novelists who've won the Nobel prize.

Since proposals are very condensed, it is difficult to avoid some vagueness and lack of clarity. At the same time, I am very harsh with vagueness in my comments, since this is a potentially fatal flaw. You can be concise and still precise. A summary of chapters of the proposed book is always helpful, with as much detail as possible.

Theoretical language, or jargon, is usually not welcome in grant applications. I usually tell people to cut that to a minimum.

It is good to read a proposal from the point of view of ignorance. In other words, the less I know, the more I can put myself in the position of the average historian or English professor with no specific knowledge of the topic. Of course, I won't necessarily catch mistakes that would be visible to a specialist reader, but a specialist might not realize what is unclear to the non-specialist.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

How to Give a Presentation in a Graduate Course

I took a course in Graduate School on the Theory of the Lyric. We all had to give a presentation, and I saw what happened to every single student before me. The poor student would start summarizing the article of the day in a dull way, struggling to grasp the material, and the professor, a brilliant guy but not a brilliant pedagogue, would eventually interrupt and just finish the presentation himself.

So I vowed this would not happen to me. I prepared my presentation in the form of a coherent argument. I didn't summarize the article, but used it for a new paper of my own. The professor did not interrupt me, because he wanted to know where my argument was going. I had something to say. I had trouble because I was talking about two critics named (Cleanth) "Brooks" and (Kenneth) "Burke" and I wasn't that articulate that particular day. I kept stumbling over their similar-sounding names, but then that became a joke that I used to my benefit to build a rapport with the audience. I still remember that I was arguing that Burke was refuting Brook's New Critical reading of Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in the Well-Wrought Urn.

I also did another smart thing, which was to volunteer for my presentation based on my previous knowledge of Kenneth Burke. People wanted to hear what I said about Burke because they could tell I knew what I was talking about. The other students were, I'm sure, as bright as I was, but I was able to strategize my way toward a better presentation.

So to give a good presentation, observe the dynamic of the previous presentations in the course. How is the professor responding? What kind of presentations have been the most effective thus far? Most professors want a combination of information / summary and interpretation / critique. Don't give biographical information or use Wikipedia or powerpoint, unless you are specifically required to use the latter. Don't summarize an article point by point, but do an overview, picking out those points that are most relevant to YOUR argument.

When offering a critique of a theoretical or critical reading, don't just give a list of everything wrong with it. Instead, develop a coherent argument about its strengths and weaknesses. The listener should be able to discern two clear arguments: that of the author and that of the presenter, and know how they relate to each other.


I'm a little worn out. I've accomplished quite a bit this academic year and I have a few weeks of the semester left to teach still. I was enormously productive, making substantial progress on my book. I've taught, blogged, started the Writing Group, invited speakers to campus and picked them up at the airport, gone to New York. I still have two articles to finish by June, and I still want to write during the summer so as not to lose momentum.

Monday, April 18, 2011

How I Do A Peer Review

1. Usually, articles are sent to me as word documents, so I open up the document and begin to "track changes." I Correct some obvious typos and put comments directly into the document. The author of the article will never see these comments or corrections, but I find it helpful for myself. I also take "mental notes," sub-verbalizing what I think. What I'm doing is writing a draft the reader's report in my head. At this point I basically know whether it's an acceptance, a review and resubmit, or a rejection.

2. I get a good night's sleep.

3. The next day I draft a reader's report. I use my marginal comments and my mental notes as the basis of that. I outline the strengths of the paper, the exact points that need to be improved. I might make specific comments on style, organization, and argumentation. When I have the reader's report done, I make sure that it corresponds with my judgment of whether it's a resubmit, rejection, or acceptance. For example, I might have thought it's a resubmit, but reading my own report it's obvious that there are too many serious problems. Or, when I outline the strengths of the article, a reject might be promoted to a resubmit. I never change from acceptance to rejection or rejection to acceptance, though.

4. I get another good night's sleep.

5. I look at my reader's report the next day. Is this still what I think? Do I need to rewrite it to soften the criticism?

In some cases I can do 5 on the same day as 3. In other cases I do the entire report in one day, when the flaws of the article are so obvious that I can tell the editor what they are in much less time.

The most frequent kind of article I read are resubmits, followed closely by rejections and outright acceptances with only minor changes This means that I am usually help an author get hir articles into print.


Some writing advisors will tell you not to over-rely on the verb "to be" or on adjectives. Yet look how much work is done in this very well-written paragraph by adjectives with the copulative verb:
Now picture one kind of “bad” student. This child is obsessive, inflexible, a bad listener. Prone to daydreaming, preferring her own company, idiosyncratic in her tastes, she is a solitary, possibly discontented child. In one way, she is a classroom problem, with disorders of attention or attachment. She is also an eccentric; an artist; perhaps a “genius”; in any case, an economic burden, a proto-elitist, with the capacity for generative unhappiness. One might go so far as to call her a natural humanities major.

The entire central part of the paragraph is nothing more than a series of copulae, with the verb "is" and adjectives and nouns afterwards. Why does this work? The sentence structure is varied, the words are well-chosen. The reader is not counting instances of the verb "to be" to see whether the writing is active and vivid or not.

Bland and Spicy

A review of some books by Nicholas Dames demonstrates the difference between bland and spicy writing. He quotes a paragraph by Martha Nussbaum trying to show how the humanities are useful:
Let us now consider the relevance of this ability to the current state of modern pluralistic democracies surrounded by a powerful global marketplace. First of all, we can report that, even if we were just aiming at economic success, leading corporate executives understand very well the importance of creating a corporate culture in which critical voices are not silenced, a culture of both individuality and accountability

Then he points out how Nussbaum's idea of the humanities leaves out something essential:
Now picture one kind of “bad” student. This child is obsessive, inflexible, a bad listener. Prone to daydreaming, preferring her own company, idiosyncratic in her tastes, she is a solitary, possibly discontented child. In one way, she is a classroom problem, with disorders of attention or attachment. She is also an eccentric; an artist; perhaps a “genius”; in any case, an economic burden, a proto-elitist, with the capacity for generative unhappiness. One might go so far as to call her a natural humanities major.

Nussbaum's corporate buzzwords are bland, whereas Dames's own prose is full of life. We can actually picture this future humanities major as a sullen child who won't necessarily fit into the corporate mold.

The contrast between the two prose styles goes along way toward making the point. I don't know who Dames is, but I am going to start following his writing.


... don't forget to check in at the writing group blog today. We are more than a month in, and now is when you will start to see the real benefits. There is also a temptation, though, of quitting about now. Don't worry if there is a slight lag after the initial novelty wears off. If you get through those lags, you will see even more results.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


I've always wanted to the be top specialist in my own subfield. I realized at a certain point that I will never know if I have achieved that, because there is no official list, but that by having that as my initial goal, I have made sure that I am a name that must be mentioned in the conversation, at least. A somewhat grandiose goal helped me to achieve a modest amount.

If your goal is modest, that is fine, but generally speaking people come up a little short. I think a goal should be realistic but still a bit ambitious. That way, if you don't quite get there, you'll still have come further than someone who didn't try to do very much in the first place.

You might have to attempt to publish three articles a year in order to average one and a half. If you goal is three, you will probably publish one or two, but if your goal is one, you might not publish any. (If your goal is twelve, you might not publish any either. There is no point in setting a goal that's impossible.)

I realize most people don't think being the best person in a field is a correct goal. It sounds too competitive. Feel free to think in terms of non-competitive goals if you want. I'm just wired that way.


I haven't written much about motivation itsef here, on Stupid Motivational Tricks, but it is the single most significant factor. Without motivation, there is no reason to even get out of bed in the morning. With strong enough motivation, people can do amazing things that you wouldn't think possible.

Many confuse motivation with the temporary feeling of enthusiasm that you might derive from an occasional stimulus. Suppose you had just seen a motivational speaker and were very excited about what you could do. Believe in yourself! That would be nice, but what happens a week later when the speaker is somewhere else giving the same speech to another audience? A week after that? How do you keep that motivation going?

No. Motivation needs to be something different.

It must be goal oriented. Very specific, narrow goals must fit into finite, definite windows of time. (Write 1000 words this week.) These narrow goals must be tied to more grandiose ones. For example, one of my early professional goals was to be the top expert in 20th century Spanish poetry in the US. This sort of grandiose goal is meaningless without the intermediate steps, the extreme short time (the day, the week), and the medium-term (the article, the semester, the year).

Motivation must also be realistic. Realistic doesn't mean easy, but within possible reach. For example, one of my goals was to publish in the PMLA. This was very difficult, and I have been rejected by the PMLA more times than I care to confess, but I did publish one article there.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Another Reason We Hate Research

I forgot the number one reason people hate research:

Research really puts the ego on the line. The sense of self-worth of an academic, typically someone who is used to being the smartest person in the room (in any given room) is tied up with how good the research is judged to be. The idea of being judged can be almost intolerable. What if you really aren't as smart as you thought you were? What if everyone can see you're an impostor? Academia is an environment where there are a lot of smart people, so that even a smart person can end up being below average.

The judgement never ends until promotion to full professor. Even then, you can still get rejected.

I have no easy way out of the ego trap. I'll let you know when I figure this one out.

Why We Hate Research

I love research, but the larger question is why "we" in general don't like it.

(1) Isolation. Human beings need both relatedness and autonomy. Research in the Humanities gives you a lot of autonomy, so if you like that, you will like research. On the other hand, you research is usually about things that nobody else in your family or even department really understand. Those who do understand your research are your implicit competitors. You might get along with them fine, but you only see them at conferences. You can publish an article and have nobody, every, say a word to you about the article afterwards. This is a lot of work for one line on your cv.

(2) Fucked-up reward structure. Research brings the ultimate academic reward, tenure. This only happens once in your career, though. The rewards are few and far between, and come long after the work was done. You can also get some small raises for doing research, but these are never in proportion to the effort put in. If you do very, very good work over many years, you might get a job where the financial rewards are substantial, but this hasn't happened for me yet.

(3) Writing itself is hard for most people. They would rather do almost anything else than face the blank page.

(4) Research requires time management skills that most people don't have, whether when dealing with large blocks of unstructured time or trying to write in the gaps of the days.

(5) Society thinks research is worthless unless it cures cancer or makes us more wealthy.

Despite all of these things, I love research. I look for ways to reduce my isolation. I have been around long enough to reap a few rewards. I like the actual process of writing. I have good time management. Finally, I don't care what "society" thinks. My society thinks the most valuable things are waging war, hitting balls with sticks, and accumulating worthless, schlocky decorations, among other things.

Book Reviews

Writing book reviews is a good way of keeping up one's scholarly base. There are, however, some traps here. I will try to answer some questions posed recently by Clarissa. (I'm rephrasing some of these questions.)

(1) Should all reviews be positive?

I've written some negative reviews, so I would be hypocritical if I said all reviews should be positive. For an untenured person, the risk is high, since the author reviewed or some friend of the author might not like it. I would say that all reviews should be balanced and honest, generous with the strengths of the book. I'd prefer to write only positive reviews, but sometimes I say yes thinking that the book will be good, and then it's not.

(2) How much do reviews count for tenure / promotion?

Very little. A 1,000 word review might count about 1/6 of the 6,000 word article, but you can't just write six reviews in place of an article. Only write reviews if you already know you will have more than enough articles and other more solid publications. Don't write encyclopedia entries at all. The perfect tenure case would have 6-10 articles, 1 book, 3 reviews, and zero encyclopedia articles.

(3) Why do people send me their books? Does this imply that they want me to review them?

No. Most requests for reviews come from the journals, not from the authors. If someone sends you their book it usually means they think you are someone important enough to have some influence on their career (or a close personal friend).

(4) What other reasons are there for writing or not writing reviews?

You get free books in your field. You are doing a book review editor a favor. / On the negative side, it can be time-consuming.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Proverbial Generosity

Someone in an emailed complimented me on my "proverbial intellectual generosity." That really made my day, especially since I didn't know I had that reputation.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Collaboration (2)

I've found someone with whom I'd like to collaborate on an article. I've long wanted to to this, but it is hard to find someone with whom I could establish an equal partnership. It has to be someone who shares some of my ideas and prejudices, but who does not think in exactly the same way as I do. Someone who knows some things I don't. It can't be someone vastly junior to me, so that I would be the overbearing partner. I'm not looking for a research assistant or someone to flesh out my ideas, but someone who could hold their own with me.

Anyway, there are only a few people like this that I know, so I've made some overtures to see whether this might work.

Scholarship is kind of isolating, so I need to work with other people more. I have enough publications under my own name so that I don't have to worry about how much credit I get.

Research Got You Where You Are

There ought be a kind of researcher's bill of rights.

Research got you where you are.

(You competed with many other people to get your job. Your expertise and research was a factor in getting you the job you have.)

You are paid to do research or at the very least to maintain your scholarly base.

(If you are teaching at the college level you got there because you are good at what you are teaching. You developed the skills and knowledge that you are imparting to the students. You need to keep developing your own knowledge base, because nothing is worse than a teacher gone stale. If you actually are in a research position then doing that research is part of what you are paid to do, not some ancillary thing you do on your own time, even if the department and the university act like that sometimes.)

Anyone who says you are writing too much, or discourages you from your work, should be your sworn enemy.

(The motivations of people who tell you this are never good. They can envious of you; they might think you are better than them [you are]; they might just want to sabotage your career out of pure spite. Even if their motives were good, so what?)

You should feel proud of your accomplishments.

(Stop being embarrassed about devoting too much time to your work, or publishing too much. )


Why do we sabotage our own efforts? If someone else did to us what we do to ourselves, we would be quite angry.

We can be our own worst critics, but I prefer to think of myself as my own best critic. In other words, I am tough with myself, but also generous. I want to treat myself like the way I would treat my own best friend.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Letting Good Things Be Good

One thing I'm working on now with my therapist is to let good things be good and not downplay their sheer goodness. In 2009 I published two books, but one of them was (perhaps) not quite as brilliantly original and ground-breaking as the other. I tended to downplay that one, whereas if anyone else had written it, I would see it as a major achievement. I shouldn't really see it merely as the "second best book." This book contains articles I published in Dia-f****-critics and Hispanic Review, and Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, and defined an entire debate in my field. Remember that most academics get full professor for their second book, whereas these were my third and fourth books, since I published two before tenure.

Some academics feel guilty about doing research, apparently. Even though that was what they trained to do in Graduate School. Even though it was there prowess in research (at least in part) that got them the job they have. My Latin Americanist colleagues feel guilty about teaching literature, even though teaching literature is one of the most marvelous things anyone can do - a way of spreading the wealth, so to speak. If you really love literature, as I do, then it makes sense that teaching it would be an inherently valuable thing to do.

There are enough bad things in the world already, enough problems that any individual might have. If you turn good things into bad (or not so good) things, you are not doing anyone any favors. Certain kinds of guilt really do nobody any good. I'm quite certain a poor Latin American peasant derives absolutely no benefit from the guilt of a Latin American literature professor who is uneasy about teaching literature.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Letting the Ideas Settle Down

If you are always working on something, every day, then the ideas have no time to "settle." That's why I recommend writing in 3-4 self-contained writing sessions (each around 2-3 hours) over the week, and thinking as little as you can about the project between those sessions.

The time off really helps, even if you feel you should be working all the time. The reason for this is threefold: your mind continues to work sub-consciously even when you are not working. When you return to your project you'll find you have developed ideas that you didn't even know you had. Secondly, you gain distance from your writing; you can see what it is on the page, not what it is in your mind. Thirdly, you don't wear yourself out. Writing is quite exhausting.

I didn't do this when I was working on Apocryphal Lorca. I worked seven days a week for almost a year. The ideas only settled during the 21-23 hours I wasn't working on it. That still worked out fine, but for most people, and even for me now, I find the settling process needs a little more time.

Another Thing to Know About Yourself

You should know how long it takes you to write an article, how many writing sessions of 1-3 hours, and you should also know how many times a week you can schedule a writing session. For me, when I'm teaching, this is usually 3 or 4 times a week. The ideal is usually somewhere between 2 and 5. One is not quite enough for continuity, 6 or 7 don't allow you much room for the ideas to "settle down."

So let's work with this numbers a bit.

1 week at 3, 400 word sessions = 1,200 words. (five weeks for 6,000 words.)
1 week at 4, 500 word session = 2,000 words. (three weeks for the same.)
So working with those two parameters you can write an article in about four weeks or a month.

Now this is extremely hard work, writing 2-3 hours 3 to 4 times a week and actually producing decent quality scholarship. Very few people write this much, this consistently. You'll always need extra time if things don't quite go right (they never do). It helps to know, however, how many writing sections you can typically fit into one week.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Knowing How Much You Can Write

A good thing to know is approximately how much you can write in an hour or two. If you have no idea, then you have no conception of how long it would take you to write a 20-page article, for example. How many 1-3 hour sessions do you need to produce the 6,000 words necessary?

(For me, for example, it takes me 12 to 15 sessions (at 400 to 500 words each) to reach this goal. It might take me another 4-8 days to revise the article into its penultimate form.)

If you don't know this about yourself, you will delay work, either because you think it will take you four times more than it really will, or because you think you can do it right before the deadline in a few days. Knowing how long tasks will take is a major defense against procrastination.

Peer Reviews

My friend and colleague thought that my idea of offering a peer review service was unique. Neither of us know of anyone else doing this.

Basically, what I do is write a peer review of your article as though I were doing it for a journal. You can get this critique before you send your article to a journal, and get (often) better and more extensive comments from me than you would get from a real peer reviewer, and possibly save some time by not having to wait 2-6 months only to be told your article is a revise-and-resubmit or an outright rejection.

Friday, April 8, 2011

What Other Services Should I Offer?

Click on the page "fees and services" and tell me what other services I should offer.

My main areas of expertise are

(1) Prose style. The actual writing part of writing.

(2) Task management. How to get things done.

(3) Career development and mentoring.

(4) Ideas. I can engage your work at the level of the content too.

I want to develop my consulting side-line over the summer. The reason is that, frankly, we are not paid over the summer on our 9-month contracts, and my salary lags behind that of other people in my department at the same or lower ranks. It's called salary compression. There will be no raises again this year. My annus mirabilis, when I published two books, there was no raise for faculty in my university.

Instead of letting the resentment eat away at me, I am beginning this private consulting business to help myself a bit. Between honoraria for talks, royalties, and work like this, I want to earn a few hundred extra dollars a month.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Aurea mediocritas

The quality of your work should be excellent, of course, but your progress only has to be mediocre. You only have to meet extremely modest goals every week to reach success on your long-term goals.

Remember that mediocre is not a synonym of bad. Mediocre means middling, so-so, average. The ancient ideal of aurea mediocritas means a kind of golden moderation, avoiding either extreme.

(Remember too that many writers have extremely bad habits of procrastination, avoidance, irregularity of schedule. So mediocrity [having really good habits in terms of regularity, but not writing huge amounts all the time] is really way above average.)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Festina lente

This Latin adage collected by Erasmus means "make haste slowly." Some people in the writing group or readers of SMT have been talking about feeling rushed, if they have very little time to work. I recommend working for 10 minutes (if you have 10 minutes) just to see if you can, or working in shorter stretches than you have assumed you can work.

I interpret the adage as meaning: make good use of time, but without rushing or impatience. You never have to push things faster than they need to go, as long as you are not slowing yourself up unnecessarily. Careless speed and slow dithering have a lot in common, actually. Both can lead to error.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Bar Nakpin

On a bar napkin I wrote down a few reasons why you might want to enlist my professional services.

(1) Competence. I know what I am doing.

(2) Efficiency. I can work fast and efficiently. I won't waste my time or yours.

(3) Confidence. I know that what I am saying is backed-up by my confidence.

(4) Ethics. If I am not helping you (in my opinion or yours) I won't continue to work with you. If you think my work is not good, I won't accept money from you. I won't work for anyone who works or studies at my home institution.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Simplicity (2)

The writing group is really helping me, even though it only puts into practice principles that I developed myself from reading Thomas's blog and working along similar lines in SMT.

When I observe others attempting to put these principles into practice I also notice where they are successful and where they are not. This helps me too.

Some members propose several goals for a week, whereas I make sure that my goal is always a single one related to both the short term and long term project. I like to be single-minded and clear about what I want to get done and whether I get it done or not, and it seems to me that multiple goals cloud the waters a bit. I might even have a few secondary goals, but I don't bother to write those down.

That way I always have very clear sight of the relation between long term project, short term project, and weekly goal. I can juggle three balls very easily, but four is beyond my competence.