Relatively Undisciplined

The world works in funny ways.

I sent out a number of e-mails to friends in the past week, letting them know of the birth of the book, and have subsequently received dozens of lovely notes that remind me of why they’re my friends. But none among them was more surprising than the terrific note I got this morning from Simon Cook.

Simon, among his many other attributes, is a boundless repository of Soviet jokes. To wit, three men in the Gulag:

Comrade, what are you in for?

I was ten minutes late to work. They accuse me of not supporting collective goals. What are you in for?

I was ten minutes early to work. They accuse me of ambition. What are you in for?

I was on time for work. They accuse me of owning foreign watch.

Simon and I spent many, many hours out on the deck between the “portables” (trailers) that constituted the one-time home of the Duke University Writing Program, keeping one another sane in a crazy time. He let me know this morning of his life in Israel, his wife and three sons, his work as a professional academic editor. And he let me know of his project Rounded Globe.

Rounded Globe is what a library was meant to be. A library without boundaries.

We publish high quality accessible scholarly essays.

Accessibility means a work can be freely shared. It also means that it is intelligible to a reader outside the discipline. We believe accessibility is the basic condition for the survival of the humanities in the digital age.

All our ebooks are published under a creative commons license that allows them to be freely shared.

I love that broader definition of “accessibility,” going beyond the economic arguments of open access to the moral arguments of which communities we converse with. I once made the case in another publication that ethnography, as traditionally practiced, is another form of colonization, taking resources from a community for our own use while leaving nothing of benefit behind. If we’re going to talk about people, at least let’s not talk about them behind their backs.

Simon himself has shifted his intellectual focus from the history of 19th Century political economics to a cultural/historical analysis of The Lord of the Rings as a form of English cultural history (J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology). He was only able to do that because, as an independent scholar who makes his living through supporting the work of others, he was not beholden to remain on a set of tracks through a known landscape. His discipline holds no power over him, a blessed form of freedom.

Comrade, what are you in for?

I publish paper cited three times. They accuse me of insufficient impact. What are you in for?

I publish article in New York Times. They accuse me of popularization. What are you in for?

I publish book outside my discipline. They accuse me of curiosity.

Unseen Allies

Years ago, I read an interview with John Updike in which he talked about the joy of receiving a fresh box of his new books. He smelled them. He held them in his hands, admiring their covers, turning them gently so they’d catch the light like a jewel. He opened one, pleased with the publisher’s choice of typeface, so graceful, so elegant. And then, invariably, within the first few minutes of browsing, he’d come across a typo, and his joy was dashed.

I now have my own box, as of yesterday morning. And I have done exactly those same things. But I cannot yet bring myself to open one, for fear of my own glaring error.

My phobias, though, are not the point of today’s message. Today’s message is about how much better the book is because someone else made it that way. I spent much of the summer and fall of 2015 exchanging documents with the Press’s stellar Renaldo Migaldi, Senior Manuscript Editor. Renaldo read every single one of the 110,000 words in the manuscript, already a remarkable dedication; you and I as civilians almost certainly don’t read every single word of the things we read—we gloss, we slide, we skim. Renaldo did not. He dug in, locating every hitch and hiccup along the way. Of which there were a stunning number.

Now, remember, this is the University of Chicago Press, the curators of the Chicago Manual of Style. One does not argue with the very people who hold the sacramental chalice. So I, rightly and wisely, conceded nearly every point, and the book is vastly better for it. I am forever grateful to Renaldo for making the PhDictionary a far, far better work than it had started out to be.

And yet… this book is written in a colloquial, casual voice. I wanted it to be fun to read. And so the few tangles that Renaldo and I found ourselves in was due to my use of some construction that just sounded like folks talking. And, of course, it WAS technically incorrect, but I managed to hang onto a few of them where I thought they were most crucial to the spirit of a story.

Language is musical. If you play some selected notes off the beat, it humanizes the sound, gives it intention and specificity. If you play every note off the beat, you’re just inept. Renaldo brought this manuscript into sharp time, against which my most personal hesitations or surges could be heard more clearly.

Even this most internal of projects—a sole author communicating my own thinking—is a team endeavor. There are at least four people I can name at the Press whose attention to this book has brought it alive; there are a dozen early readers and reviewers who simultaneously encouraged and nudged. As Elizabeth Warren rightly says, none of us build it on our own.

The Alluring Lie of Balance

When I first went to grad school, we had a half-day orientation for new TAs. And the first diagram on the whiteboard explained how to balance our time. That speaker posited that we needed to use 50% of our time for our own coursework, 50% of our time for our own research, 50% of our time for our teaching and grading, and 50% of our time for our family and personal life.

And although we all chuckled and went on about our day, I’m here to tell you that it’s worse than that. Because if you want to do any of those things well, they’re going to take way more than 50% of your time.

I just saw a remarkable, brief video of the guitarist Kaki King describing her relationship to her music. She grew up as a near-blind, awkward lesbian girl going to religious schools in Georgia… her entire emotional repertoire was poured into the one outlet she had, her guitar. And as Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) now says, “There are some guitar players that are good, and there are some guitar players that are really fucking good. And then there’s Kaki King.” That’s the result of twenty years of obsession, not a hobby that she fit in around her other responsibilities.

In order to be astonishingly good at something, you have to give yourself permission to be a little mis-shapen. You have to recognize that you will be giving up some things you value. You have to recognize that you will be a weirdo. You have to recognize that there are people who will want things from you—maybe even people you love—to whom you just can’t respond the way you’d like, because you’re immersed doing that one thing that haunts you.

I no longer remember where I read this quote: “We don’t get what we want. We get what we want most.” So… what do you want most? Family? Comfort? A gym body? You can probably only pick a couple of things at a time to fully invest yourself in. And if your curiosity isn’t one of them, then a doctoral program may not be right for you.

Holy Cow!

A couple of early reviews of The PhDictionary have come in, and it’s gratifying to see that the response has thus far been welcoming. But just yesterday, Inside Higher Ed ran a review and a long interview that I did with their correspondent Colleen Flaherty. They really gave the book and its ideas a lot of room; I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcomes.

You can read the piece here.

Yes, but…

Why are faculty meetings so miserable?

I think it’s because, as scholars, we’ve trained ourselves in ways that make it almost inevitable.

Think about the basic moves of a scholar’s career. To paraphrase Birkenstein & Graff’s work on academic templates, the origin of almost every piece of research can be summarized as “Although the phenomenon of __________ is relatively well understood, it is not yet clear how ______ takes place.” Or, to paraphrase even more briefly, “Yes, but…”

We make our bones by carving out some small aspect of a larger problem and complicating that aspect, bringing it to center stage. So what happens when a dean brings a request to the table? Or when a hiring committee is down to its last candidates? Or when a policy needs to be revised? We gloss over the 78% of it that we might agree upon, and raise the disagreements to the top of the pile so that we can exercise our analytical powers upon them. By so doing, we find aspects of the problem that we might natively have agreed upon and make them unstable as well. Before long, a pretty reasonable idea is remanded to a subcommittee for further study, but not until all 35 people in attendance have given us their unique reading on the underlying problem that makes this problem insoluble.

Sometimes this strategy is taken up on purpose. A common block to data-driven curricular reform is to read an interesting and evocative piece of assessment, and say “This is really powerful. You know what else we need to study is…” This puts the onus back upon the assessment team, and the speaker is never held responsible to act any differently. But I think most of the time, we’re just enacting the very best skills of academic life in venues where they’re counterproductive. (And all of our very best skills are counterproductive in some venues.)

Here’s a proposal to make faculty meetings enjoyable. Whenever someone comes to the table with a recommendation, ask yourself whether that recommendation is cruel and mean-spirited. If not, ask yourself whether you think it irreparably damages the department or institution, whether it rises to the level of existential threat. If not, say—out loud—”That’s a terrific idea. Go for it.” And then let it go and take up the next item on the agenda.

Unseen Work

I tend to mistrust “how-to” books. I think they’re too sanitized to be trustworthy, reducing complex and contextual circumstances to linear recipes. Much more interesting are the “how-it-happened” books, in which some person talks about how their amazing life got to be so amazing. Filled with stories and accidents and roads not chosen, these are the books that I’ve found more reassuring and helpful. There’s a reason The PhDictionary isn’t structured as a how to get a job book…

One of my very favorite “how it happened” books of recent years is Bill Bruford: The Autobiography (2009, London, Jawbone Press). Bill Bruford was the drummer for the band Yes in its early years of huge success, then jumped ship for King Crimson during its early years of huge success, and then pursued a succession of personal projects (Bill Bruford’s Earthworks) and fun side jobs (Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, or BLUE). He’s one of these players who revolutionized his instrument—contemporary drummers do things a little differently because of him, they have more possibilities at hand (so to speak…).

Bruford’s structured his book around a series of common questions he never wants to answer again. What’s it like working with Robert Fripp? Do you just play anything you like? Do you like doing interviews? And one of those questions was “Oh, you’re a musician. So what do you do during the day, then?” He never actually does the arithmetic in the book, but as I read, I came to estimate that maybe 30% of his professional working life as a drummer was spent behind a drum kit, practicing or rehearsing or performing or giving lessons. The substantial majority was engaged in the business of music:

  • auditioning and hiring other players
  • arranging practice venues
  • scheduling studio time
  • reviewing designs for t-shirts and CD labels
  • managing product distribution
  • scheduling tours and organizing transportation
  • getting paid by promoters and venues
  • shipping musical instruments and sound equipment around the world, and setting them all up when he arrives
  • doing interviews, signing autographs, working his own merchandise table after the shows

Here’s a fraction of the setup for a concert in Cadiz, Spain (after he’s rebuilt his own drum kit, a job the technicians had bollixed up wholesale):

After about 30 minutes, I take time to mic and position the grand piano, mic and position the bass amp, position and monitor the music stands, and complete the thousand-and-one other tasks that will make the stage ready for the arrival of my colleagues. This is, of course, the job of the production manager, for which I am now wearing the seventh of my nine hats. The drum kit is functional and soundchecked with minutes to spare; the others walk in. Unnecessarily sensitive to the collective mood, my radar scans the arriving group and gratifyingly registers laughter, stories. Next up, then, for the next hour and everyone’s amusement, is the bilingual soundcheck, with no translator.

While not as glamorous, academic life also has its unseen logistical worlds, jobs no one ever teaches us but that we must know how to do in order to do the work people think we do. We need to learn to operate and modify software, to set up and calibrate equipment. We need to learn how to respectfully ask permission to engage the archives of a crabby family, or a justifiably resentful subjugated culture. We need to learn to book our own travel, to act as our own literary agent, to act as our own promoter, to be our own tech support when we’re on the road and our laptop acts up. We manage down, when we bring the recalcitrant student into some degree of engagement with our course; we manage up, when we bring the recalcitrant dean into some degree of acquiescence with our research plans. We organize schedules, write budgets, manage expenses, build and supervise teams. We manage hurt feelings and encourage new partnerships. All of those are learned skills, too often learned in shame and secrecy by screwing up unnecessarily and repeatedly.

One of the goals of The PhDictionary was to make those logistical skills at least visible, so that younger readers could know that these problems were coming and that they could ask about them in advance. But a second goal was to make those logistical skills newly visible to older readers who already do them—to remind advisors and chairs and deans of their own responsibilities to teach the logistics and the culture of our profession, not merely the 30% of working life that has to do with content.

The Ramifications of Not Considering Luck

The Atlantic Monthly has become one of those clubby, patrician magazines that the comfortable read to reassure themselves of their comfort. Every so often, though, they surprise me.

One of those surprises is in this month’s issue, an article by Robert H. Frank called “Why Luck Matters More than You Might Think.” In it, he discusses our natural tendencies to explain prior events as somehow logically inevitable. Thus, persons who have succeeded have done so because of their talent, hard work and moral virtue; those who have not succeeded must be missing one or more of those characteristics.

As I discuss in the book in the entry on Meritocracy, this is a partial truth at best. We have all employed our best efforts within contexts over which we have no control. We have family histories and childhood resources that we did not control. Our work is subject to public policy considerations that we do not control. We place our talents in service of an academic job market that we do not control. Sometimes those winds are in our favor… sometimes they are not.

For our purposes today, I’d like us to consider those times when the tides have lifted us, to consider those random facts of our experience that have offered us a boost. Why does this matter? I’ll let Mr. Frank answer that:

…a growing body of evidence suggests that seeing ourselves as self-made—rather than as talented, hardworking, and lucky—leads us to be less generous and public-spirited. It may even make the lucky less likely to support the conditions (such as high-quality public infrastructure and education) that made their own success possible.

So what elements of utter luck made it possible for me to go to, and to succeed in, graduate school? Here’s a very partial list:

  • As a child, I was left largely alone in a home filled with books and magazines. That meant that I had enormous amounts of time to read, and to select for myself what I read.
  • I was born without the Internet, which meant that I learned how to focus. And I went to grad school with the Internet, by which time I’d acquired some self-discipline.
  • My mom and my aunts loved to play cards and invited me to play as well, which meant that I could manipulate numbers quickly at a very early age.
  • As a college student at Berkeley (and as a grad student at Milwaukee), I was encouraged to take courses outside my degree program, discovering a body of ideas and possible connections that would never have occurred within the intellectual monoculture of a discipline.
  • When I finished undergrad at Berkeley, I knew that I wanted to stay there for my PhD, but I thought I should apply to a backup school, too.

Change any one of those conditions, or any one of hundreds of others, and my life would have been markedly different. Add in the hundreds of elements of generosity, of people doing something they needn’t have done to teach me or to open a door, and I can see that everything I’ve been able to accomplish has been enabled, in fundamental ways.

Only by considering the advantages we’ve had and the generosities we’ve received can we be conscious of the advantages we should try to confer, and the generosities we might offer.

Bookshelf—Becoming an Ex

Occasionally, I’d like to highlight a book that I think that you’ll benefit from, whether you’re a prospective or current grad student, a prospective or current faculty member, or an advisor of either of those two communities.

Today’s book, a recommendation of a kind and smart friend, is Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh’s Becoming an Ex: The Process of Role Exit (1988, University of Chicago Press). And I think it’s important because it complicates the already-complicated process of taking on new roles, whether personal or social or professional. We already do a pretty bad job of that, which is why The PhDictionary exists—we don’t do nearly enough to help our students or our colleagues prepare to be different people when they take on a different role. A scholar is just a different kind of animal than a student—more independent, more political, more aligned with bodies of thought and the people who develop and carry them. Being a good student is only marginal preparation for being a good scholar.

Ebaugh’s brilliant contribution is that we simultaneously take on two new roles every time we become someone new—that we also become an “ex.” To draw from the list on the cover of her book, we become an ex-doctor, an ex-nun (her own circumstance as she moved into academic sociology), an ex-prostitute, an ex-husband, an ex-convict. Like a whiteboard erased after a busy class session, we will always carry the faint writing of the past self. We spent decades becoming a terrific student, and now we need to learn to be an ex-student. We need to learn to carry those life lessons with us, to claim the very best parts of that role—diligence, energy, collegiality and cameraderie—into our faculty or professional lives while understanding that the new role will also require different attributes.

In a very real sense, the process of becoming an ex involves tension between one’s past, present, and future. One’s previous role identification has to be taken into account and incorporated into a future identity. To be an ex is different from never having been a member of a particular group or role-set. Nonmembers do not carry with them the “hangover identity” of a previous role and therefore do not face the challenge of incorporating a previous role identity into a current self-concept… A person in the process of establishing him- or herself in a new role struggles to become emotionally disentangled from the self-perceptions and normative expectations of a previous role while at the same time people in society are expecting certain role behavior based on a previous identity. [Ebaugh, 149]

Academic life is full of transitional moments: from undergrad to doctoral student, from doctoral student to faculty supplicant, from job beggar to job holder, from pre-tenured assistant professor to safely tenured associate professor, from faculty member to administrator. At each of those transitional moments, we should give conscious consideration to building the new person that the new role requires, while being equally conscious of the pasts we will carry.

The Nested Bell Curves

I grew up a huge fan of the Detroit Tigers, and thus learned to love baseball above all other team sports. Because of that, I used to read Bill James’ Baseball Abstracts, the annual geek’s guides to baseball statistics that were the precursor to the Moneyball era.

In one of those editions, he discussed baseball fans who watch a miserable player or a miserable team and say—nachos in one hand and a beer cup in the other—”I could play better’n that!” No, James said. No, you couldn’t. And he used the descending upper tail of the normal distribution to make his point. If there are thirty MLB ballclubs, and each team has an active roster of 25 players, that’s 750 men currently playing professional baseball at its highest level. These are the 750 best baseball players in a nation of roughly 200 million adults; that is to say, they are at the uppermost .00000375 of American baseball talent, five or six standard deviations above the mean.

You and I, alas, are not.

So imagine player #750, say a backup infielder for the Phillies, 2015’s worst team. There he sits, day after day on the bench, watching his team lose two out of three games all year. And yet, he is an immeasurably better ballplayer than any high school star, an unimaginably better ballplayer than you and I. He was born with the right physiology, he was born with some degree of innate talent, he got terrific coaching, and he has worked harder than any human being should ever have to work in their lives to be as fit and as capable as he is. He is, by any measure, an elite athlete. But in the microscopic bell curve of major league players, he is at the far left end of the graph, the bottom of the low tail.

All bell curves, James said, contain bell curves within them. Even within the rarified air of MLB rosters, far above us mortals, there are ranges of talent, with central tendencies and outliers at both ends.


Now, let’s take this analogy to the world of doctoral life. About 50,000 people a year get PhDs; about 1.5% of all American adults have one, according to the US Census. That would put us about two to three standard deviations above the mean of the general population’s educational attainment. Most people could not do this, and you should be proud that you can.

But when placed under the microscope, that leading tail of the bell curve has a bell curve within it. Every year, if 50,000 of us get PhDs, a few hundred are at the acknowledged top of that top; a few hundred are (sometimes identifiably) at the bottom; and most of us are somewhere in that big bulge in the center. In broad population terms, we are remarkably well educated; within our own little neighborhood, though, we might not stand out so clearly.

What does this mean in strategic terms? It means that even though you’ve finished your degree, perhaps even finished it with some degree of distinction, you still have a lot of work to do to differentiate yourself from the herd. Talent is necessary but not sufficient in an elite marketplace; you need allies, networks and marketing materials that can help push you up into that outer tail of success.

Yet again, in the anteroom…

I went up to Middlebury College last night to watch a marvelous movie, Mr. Turner, about the English painter JMW Turner. It’s absolutely a marvel, with Timothy Spall giving a fully embodied performance of a deeply talented and deeply unlikeable man. But for our purposes, I’d like us to consider this brief clip of the Royal Academy of Arts annual exhibition.

If you are considering a career in higher education, these are the people who will—or will not—grant you entry. They all know one another, and have for decades. They know one another’s work, they have their ongoing friendships and grudges, none of which will be visible from outside. Pleasing one will offend another. And you, coming in with your avant-garde ideas, will have a hard time getting traction. You may be placed, yet again, in the anteroom…

As a thought experiment, imagine yourself coming into a setting like this and trying to become a part of it. Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt, and imagine that you have a sponsor, an ally on the inside… walking in unannounced and un-introduced will gain you nothing at all. So let’s imagine that the mighty Mr. Turner himself has taken you under his wing, and is introducing you to his colleagues in the Academy. How would you work the room? How would you do the ethnographic work of understanding how to position yourself?

And let’s now address those who are already inside the safety of membership. If you wanted to bring a young colleague into this community, how would you do it? What features of her work would you bring to the fore with different members of the chamber? Who would you make sure she met?

The faculty of higher education is a membership organization, no different than the Elks Club or the Masons, in which the current members elect new members. You need a sponsor, and that sponsor has to intercede on your behalf with skill and tact. And whether prospective member or sponsor, you need to think carefully about the tactics you’ll employ.