Copying the masters

One of the things I think we do poorly in teaching young people to write is that we either teach it as a mode of self-expression, in which anything goes as long as it’s authentic… or as a mode of linguistic science, a series of parts of speech and moods and tenses and rules with nothing of interest to apply the rules to.

I think there’s a middle ground. It’s called reading.

Specifically, a guided, structured reading in which we learn to copy the masters, a sort of Beaux-Arts approach to writing in which we discover the writers we really love and then put their words through our hands. One of my practices for years when I was teaching myself to write was actually typing the most beautiful paragraphs or sequences I encountered. I got to feel those ideas coming through my hands; the fact of typing made me consider the author’s decisions, and how those were different than my own habits; I just got used to managing language beautifully and elegantly.

How do you learn how to write a CV? By reading them. How do you learn to write an abstract? By reading them. How do you learn the genre you want to participate in, from computational chemistry journal to literary short story to NIH grant proposal? By reading them. And intuiting their rules, and making those rules your own.

Competitive Bids

I’m on the Select Board in our town of 740 people, which means that I get to take care of a bunch of unpredictable things as they arise. For instance, there was a house fire last month next to the town’s library, and the heat from the fire broke a few library window panes and warped the plastic rain gutter. Our municipal insurance carrier needed repair estimates. I got two. On one, the windows were $515, and the gutter was $125. On the other, the windows were $535, and the gutter was $135. So aside from marginally different materials and practices, it’s clear that both of these repair shops were seeing the job in pretty similar terms, and willing to do it for pretty similar prices.

But let me put another industry on the table for you. I’ve been involved in negotiation for three book contracts, and it’s pretty clear that the three publishers saw the world in radically different ways.

  1. Publisher A set a hardback list price of $100 and a softcover list price of $40. The author’s royalties on either were 3% of the publisher’s net proceeds (after discounts, etc).
  2. Publisher B set a hardback list price of $60 and a softcover list price of $20. The author’s royalties on the hardcovers were 5% of the publisher’s net, and 2.5% of the publisher’s net on the softcovers after the sale of the first thousand.
  3. Publisher C set a hardback list price of $60 and a softcover list price of $20. The author’s royalties on the hardcovers were 10% of the publisher’s net, and the softcovers went from 8% of net on the first 5,000, to 10% on the next 5,000, and 12% on anything beyond.

This is why fiction writers hire agents. Any individual offer for a book is seen in isolation, and so you just don’t know what’s possible, what others do. Your agent does. But literary agents aren’t so interested in academic books—it’s not their market, and there’s not nearly as much chance for a big return. So you, scholar, are on your own, adrift in a black, informationless sea. But at least now you have three data points that you can use to compare your quotes.

You’re welcome. I live to serve.

In other news, there’s been another sighting of the book, this time in the Granite State.

Photo in the wild Granite State

I also tried to upload a picture I took of a mating pair perching side by side in our local bookstore (Northshire Books, Manchester VT!!!), but I can’t figure out how to get the picture from my (non-data-plan, non-smart) phone onto the computer. Too bad, too… it was beautiful to see how their brilliant teal spinal plumage set them apart from their drab neighbors. I’ll keep trying. Maybe there’s a twelve-year-old around the neighborhood who can help.

Women’s Work

I tend to be kind of an observant person, a good character trait for an ethnographer. But I don’t always know how to turn it off, and my wife occasionally says that I’m sounding like Andy Rooney, which is a gentle way of saying that I should be quiet for a while. (Andy Rooney, children, was a curmudgeonly commentator on the CBS “60 Minutes” TV show, whose common opening line was “Didja ever notice…?”)

But you get to suffer my occupational traits. Sorry.

Didja ever notice… that once women enter a profession, the profession suddenly doesn’t get paid as well, and has more bureaucracy and more regulation? It’s no accident, I think, that as we’re getting more and more women physicians, the medical industry isn’t as highly respected; that it’s losing room for judgement and becoming more “systematized?” That it’s gaining a whole new group of professional categories like “physician assistant” and “nurse practitioner?” I think our culture simply defaults to the idea that men are important and women aren’t, and so any job that a woman can do isn’t all that important, either. (You can read a great, brief, discussion of this at the blog Crates and Ribbons—click the italicized words for a link.)

So it’s no accident, either, that as more and more women succeed in higher education, the terms of engagement in higher ed shift beneath us. The American Association of University Women reports that in fall 2011, 52.5 percent of part- time faculty members were women, while women composed 44.2 percent of full- time faculty members. The shift from the tenure-track to temp work occurred at roughly the same time as women began to enter faculty eligibility in larger numbers (and also at roughly the same time as undergraduate populations started to become less male-dominated as well). Coincidence? Is it a coincidence that we now talk about “K-16” or “K-20” education, so that we can pay college faculty as badly as we pay high school and grade school teachers?

Now I know that in a social ecosystem, no single variable carries full explanatory power. But golly, maybe we should think about what we see when we see it.

Intellectual Genres

I was at a writers’ conference a few years ago, in a session led by an acquisition editor from Penguin. (Don’t you just love the idea that the publisher is called Penguin, by the way?) Anyway, she was telling us about the shelving codes used by publishers to help booksellers departmentalize their material. The big categories, of course, we know: genres like mystery, thriller, travel, biography, supernatural, and so on. But she surprised me by talking about the subcategories as well. For instance, within “mystery,” there are noirs and procedurals and capers and historicals and romantics and… and “cozy mysteries.”

W.   T.   F.   F.?

Yes, friends, the cozy mystery. Amateur detective, usually an older woman, no visible crime or violence, no sex, no profanity. Just a cheerful little murder to solve, within a scatter of chatty and eccentric neighbors in a picturesque inn or seaside town. Murder She Wrote, basically. Sometimes the books actually contain recipes, or knitting instructions! This is a major genre, and you had better not disrupt the expectations of your readers if you expect anyone to get past page ten.

The genres of higher education, of course, are our disciplines. And you had likewise not disrupt the expectations of your readers if you expect anyone to get through your CV.

I’m right now in the midst of trying to market my fiction writing, an utterly different world than nonfiction (although literary agents are as anonymous, and as non-communicative in their rejection, as faculty search committees). And there’s a way in which the pitch letter is making two opposing cases at once. This book is fresh and innovative… and fits right in with all these other books you already know how to sell. As you market yourself as a candidate for a faculty position, you also will be making exactly that same divided case for yourself, that you’re an exciting and challenging scholar who’ll fit right in.

It’s an exacting line to walk, especially with so little feedback. So here’s my suggestion. Your department should have a folder (literal or virtual) with every single CV of every single tenure-track and tenured faculty member, available for the study of its graduate students and pending graduate students. Bio statements, too. Not only for their ostensible utility, to help your students know what you do so they can more wisely choose advisors—but more importantly as a study guide to the genre of your discipline. Which journals show up most often? Which doctoral programs did people in your department most often come from? How are research interests framed? How does your discipline define itself through its actions and allegiances?

You can learn to write a cozy mystery. It isn’t hard; you just read a hundred of them, and you start to learn the form. So too with your discipline; you learn the basic moves, and then figure out ways to do exactly those things, but with enough elan to be noticed among all of your shelfmates. To do that, you have to have the reading material to learn from.

Here’s another hint. Your department members won’t do it. They’re busy, and it’s not a priority. So some graduate student is going to have to make it her project, to go door to door and beg until she assembles a critical mass of CVs and bio statements from her masters, building a reverse-engineered guide to her genre. Get used to lifting your own bootstraps, kids.

The space between

The world of the student is filled with mechanisms for identifying and rewarding talent. Talent on certain terms, of course, but talent nonetheless. We pack thirty kids into a room and we ask them all to do the same thing. Some will do it better than others. We repeat that dozens of times a day, 180 days a year, thirteen years, and we have a relatively effective means of identifying who can do the things we value.

The ones who do it well—the gold that remains in the pan—get to do it some more, get tasks of higher level, greater focus, more sophistication. The machine winnows yet again for another four or five years, and a few of those participants are invited to continue even further, for another five or more years of the same.

In every case, the machine is designed, like a quiz show, to continually feed its participants challenges that they can identifiably do better or worse at. It is a virtual reality, a protective pod that seems like the whole world but is actually an illusion. We do not know this, because it seems so real—we’re immersed within its structures, it gives us the positive feedback that we crave, it rewards the odd blend of curiosity and obedience that we have cultivated so carefully.

But ultimately, the day comes that we have passed all of those challenges, and there is no more machine feeding us, challenging us, praising us. There is only the vast, incoherent, airless ether of “the market.”

The market rewards what it rewards, in a peculiar, circular, unknowable fashion. There is no conceivable explanation for why more people like Justin Bieber’s music than Kaki King’s, except that it’s true. There is no conceivable explanation for why E. L. James has sold a hundred million copies of shabby, secondhand vampire fiction, except that it’s true. The matrix—the logical, structured system of challenges and rewards—has finished with us, and we have entered an entirely different logic system, one we were never informed of. One that will comfortably dispose of the majority of us.

In the market, the tasks are less structured, the opportunities for challenge are less frequent, the feedback less defined. Instead of a a dozen papers a year to write for professors we’ve come to know, we have cover letters to write for the three jobs a year in our field, written to people who are anonymous to us and who do not themselves know what they want, which will receive no feedback of any sort aside from “no thank you.”

If you manage somehow to cross that wilderness, you will, surprisingly, re-enter the matrix. You will once again be given specific tasks in a reliable sequence—creating and teaching courses, conducting and submitting your research, serving on committees and preparing for promotion. And you will get regular feedback, if you’re paying attention, and thus be able to learn, to re-energize the paired muscles of curiosity and obedience. You will be welcomed back into to the pod, the virtual reality, the loving arms of the mechanical mother. You will, in fact, now help to shape it. And you will forget the terrors of the space between.

Happy Mother’s Day

I am not, myself, a mother. Nor am I a father. So I have no personal grounds to make any comments about the nature of parenthood within an academic structure. No endearing little stories, no heartwarming tales of family life.

In fact, I almost posted the book’s entry on children as today’s excerpt of the day. But once I looked at it, I decided it was too much of a buzzkill for the Mother’s Day holiday. So instead, youngsters, I’d like to encourage you to leave the room while I talk to your parents, those loving chairs and deans and provosts who provide you with shelter and sustenance.

<are they gone?>

Okay, listen. You’ve just hired a bunch of people in their early 30s. It’s the first decent job they’ve ever had, after years of living on leftover pizza and whatever they could take from the buffets at conferences. They’re paying for student loans, they’re maybe buying a house, they’re trading in the ’98 Corolla for something reliable. And god bless ’em, some of them are going to have babies. It’s the American Dream.

So you need to knock it the hell off with your snarky comments about “self-inflicted time management problems” and “the mommy track” and “engaged in an alternative field of productivity.” These people you’ve hired are people, not just scholars. They have lives outside the manicured lawns of your hallowed grounds—and they deserve lives that are bigger than their jobs. Our grandparents went on strike to get 40-hour weeks, they took nightsticks across the shoulders to have weekends. Contrary to what Productive! magazine proclaims, “work-life balance” is not a matter of individual struggle, but rather of collective responsibility.

I don’t care that your P&T guidelines indicate that assistant professors are expected to serve on three committees a year. Maybe you need fewer committees instead of more artificial burdens.

As I said in today’s preface, I don’t have kids. So that also means that I oughtn’t to be the person who tries to invent solutions that will help people with kids. That would be one of the subentries under the dictionary definition of “paternalism.” Maybe, instead, I should ask people with kids what would make their lives more manageable, and then try to make those resources and strategies possible.

And yes, Productive! magazine has an exclamation point in its title. And five women featured on the covers of its 33 online editions.