On Reflecting on My Writing Again

One of the things I have done with my writing is to collect it. That is, I keep copies of the things that I have written, many of which are gathered into large computer files and arranged by genre and chronology. There are reasons beyond the narcissism I believe endemic to all who will write–or draw, or paint, or perform in any way they seek to have others see and appreciate–for me to do so. Having a perspective on how my writing has changed since the earliest pieces I have in the collection–early in my life as an undergraduate English major–helps. Having a record of ideas I’ve treated and might return to (although that happens but rarely, to be sure) also helps. Less helpful but quietly comforting is the idea that there is more to what I have done than many or most will know, that there are secrets not kept out of shame but to have something special that might somehow, sometime be of value to some others. And the idea that I am leaving a record for Ms. 8 (and perhaps others) has its attractions for me, the more so since my journal-writing seems long since to have lapsed, and I am not at all sure that it will begin again.

As I was updating the file recently, though, and reading over the comments I have left about each of the pieces I’ve put in it, I was reminded that the collection is a collection of failure. Each piece in it is one that I either wrote for a class and never revised and resubmitted, so that I failed to follow up on ideas, or it was one that I sent out for publication and failed to put into print–even print with so low an entry barrier as this webspace. However I might have felt about what I wrote when I wrote it, however wrong I think the selectors were who chose other pieces to take up than mine, the collected writing I have gathered over some years now–and I’ve been working on the project intermittently for quite a while–is a record of failure, yet one more such for me, and one that I have put together myself–even if I did not think that was what I was doing when I was doing it.

As with the other records of my failures, though, that of my failed publications will likely remain with me. Part goes to my bibliophilic tendencies; I keep text. Also, again, I do occasionally pull older ideas and rework them. Too, Ms. 8 may someday be interested in reading what I’ve written, or my wife might, or someone else who decides they give something that resembles a damn might. And I admit to no small degree of automasochism; I tend to flagellate myself with reminders of my failings, not to spur me to later success (clearly), but because…well, I’m actually not sure why. But I know I keep doing it, over and over again.

Contributions are always welcome. Click here.


Class Report: ENGL 135, 21 April 2018

For the final meeting of the session, class was given largely to completion of the reflective postscript. Student questions were entertained and comments made about work as appropriate.

Students are reminded that the final component of the Course Project is due before the end of day Saturday, 21 April 2018.

The class met as scheduled, at 0900 in Room 114 of the San Antonio campus. The course roster listed 13 students, unchanged since last class; one attended, assessed informally. Class participation was as could be expected for the circumstances. No students attended Monday office hours.

In another Response to Erin Bartram

On 8 April 2018, the online Chronicle of Higher Education published Erin Bartram’s “Why Your Advice for Ph.D.s Leaving Academe Might Be Making Things Worse.” In the piece, Bartram summarizes responses to her earlier piece regarding leaving academia (about which more here) before moving into explications of two points she recommends to those who will give advice to they who depart academia: know that the advice is of limited use, and know that the advisee is not fully known to the adviser. Although Bartram goes to some length to explain her assertions, they still come off as a rather sharp rebuke to perhaps well-meaning but generally inept academics whose own circumstances are as assured as their advisees’ are not.

I’ve noted several times that I have more or less done as Bartram is doing; I have long since given up on landing a full-time, tenure-line–or even continuing non-tenure-track–academic job (although, as I’ve also noted, I still pick up contingent work as a useful supplement to my income–but I am under no illusion that it will be a permanent thing). I am perhaps a bit ahead of her in finding steady work outside academe, though it was not an easy thing to do; I put in nearly 200 job applications before landing my current position, which is one of those nonprofit jobs that “look like a dream” to Bartram, and I was very much in the position to take any job that would have me. (Not many would, else I’d not have had to put in nearly 200 applications to find one.) And I would not presume to say that the challenges I have faced are the same as those she has faced and is facing. Even so, I find much of interest in her article–although my experience with getting advice when exiting academia has generally been from the other side of things. That is, what I’ve gotten has been from embedded support structures and those outside academia.

That I have support structures in place is a boon, I know, and I am not unmindful of how lucky I am to have it in place. But that does not mean I was not immensely frustrated with it at many points while I tried to make my pivot to the world outside the ivory tower. And that frustration derived in large part from those outside academia, in stable jobs that they have had for years, giving advice that rang of limited knowledge of current circumstances and of particulars of my situation. It is difficult, after all, not to find it vexatious to be told to send out more job applications when, in the space of a month, I’d send out more applications than some of the people who gave me advice, well-meaning and acting from love though they were, have in lives decades longer than my own. It is not an easy thing to be told by another to be open to taking all kinds of jobs and to be told by that same person the next day–or even later in the same conversation–not to look at lesser work (as though the cost-benefit analysis hadn’t been done and done and done, and as though better jobs called back–not that lesser jobs did any better). And it is a challenge, indeed, to face with equanimity being told not to give up when many years and a mid- to high-three-digit job-application count are already on record, bespeaking a dogged determination in the face of no after no after no.

A common definition of insanity comes to mind. So does the idea of knocking at doors until knuckles bleed and the bones begin to fragment.

I suppose the point I’m making about Bartram’s essay–which, again, I enjoyed reading and found useful–is that what she discusses is far from confined to the academy. It’s a useful thing to note for more than one reason. Aside from being a reminder–as if one is needed–that the job market sucks from most angles, among others, it serves as a reminder that the ivory tower stands embodied in the world. Perhaps if it is able to resolve its problems, it might help make a start on those the rest of the planet faces.

Care to help ease my own ongoing transition out of academe? Click here.

Class Report: SPCH 275, 18 April 2018

For the final meeting of the session, class was given largely to refinement of the final component of the course project. Student questions were entertained and comments made about work as appropriate.

Students are reminded that the final component of the Course Project is due before the end of day Saturday, 21 April 2018.

The class met at 1800 in Room 107 of the San Antonio campus, the better to use needed technology. The course roster listed five students enrolled, unchanged from last week; four attended, assessed informally. Class participation was as expected for the events of the day. No students attended Monday office hours.

On One of My Concerns as a Father

That I have a child, a daughter born in 2014, is not something of which I’ve made a secret–although I do not discuss her much online, to be sure. (When I do, I usually refer to her as “Ms. 8” for reasons those who know her and her parents will understand–and which were her mother’s idea, although I approve of it entirely.) And, as I am a parent and I try, with less success than I might like, to be engaged in my daughter’s deeds and doings, there are no few things that give me pause, that concern me greatly. One such is that she will end up having some of the same regrets that I do–not of things left undone, but of things done.

To explain, ungrateful as I know it will make me sound: I regret doing many of the things I have done, things that other people look back on as having been fun and worthwhile experiences. High school prom (on my mind because of the season as I write this and the things that come across my news feeds as a result of that season) is one example; I went to several, spent hundreds of dollars on each, and regret most every moment and every penny put to those ends, since they’ve done me not a bit of good, and I’d’ve been better off putting the time and effort represented to work or reading. Many of the parties I’ve attended–and, believe it or not, there’ve been more than a few–have been similar; while I did have some few that were good experiences, more of them resulted in nothing more than me waking up too late the next morning, head pounding from a hangover and withdrawal from my drug of choice (caffeine, of course). One, a New Year’s party, sticks out in my mind as being a particularly bad experience. Hell, even some of the book-buying I’ve done pains me to think back upon–and I read.

However it might be that I feel as I do–and I’ve heard quite a bit about it from many people across many years, thank you, so I need no more of it–I am worried that I will pass it on to my daughter despite any efforts I make against doing so. Young as Ms. 8 is as I write this, she is already able to see through at least some of the acting I do to be her father. (I tend to subscribe to the idea that we perform roles for one another, roles based on our understanding and experience and belief about who and what we ought to be to do the things that we are or should be doing.) She knows, for example, that I take delight in some of her “bad” behavior, even as I am obliged to rebuke her for it. (Wrong for all the right reasons Ms. 8 may be at times, but I still have to caution her against the wrong.) And so I find myself caught in the cleft fork of wanting to caution her away from doing things that I see are like to do her little good if any while at the same time knowing that she may well enjoy and remember fondly what I may not have and do not. Too, there is the fact that, owing to my overall orientation, I have little idea how to have the kind of fun many of the other people I know prize–but she seems poised to be the kind of person who delights in such things.

I know, of course, that my task is to support Ms. 8 in exploring who she is and to do what can be done to keep her safe while allowing her to take the risks and experience the consequences she needs to take and feel to grow into a person who will not need me to be with her. (I hope she will want me around, of course, but I also know the day will come when I cannot be with her as she might want, far off though I hope it is, and she needs to be ready for it.) I remain unsure how to do it, though, and I worry that I will fail.

Class Report: ENGL 135, 14 April 2018

After addressing questions from the previous meeting, discussion turned to concerns of revision, discussing correctness, clarity, concision, and euphony. Examples were examined, and student questions addressed.

Students were also reminded of upcoming assignments:

  • Discussions, due online before 0059 on 16 April 2018
  • Course Project: Final Draft, due online as a Word document before 0059 on 16 April 2018
  • Course Project, Reflective Postscript, due online as a Word document before 1159 on 21 April 2018

Submission guidelines for the assignments are in the course shell.

The class met as scheduled, at 0900 in Room 114 of the San Antonio campus. The course roster listed 13 students, unchanged since last class; five attended, assessed informally. Class participation was reasonably good. No students attended Monday office hours.

Poems after the Styles of Others: An Obvious Entry

I dare not sing of love in little song,
For I know what I have to give is small;
I know it stretches little, lasts not long,
And for a tiny thing there’s not much call.
I’d sing of little else in such a form,
For I know that my love is of a piece
With all the rest of me; it does conform
To other parts of me, bears no release.
I’m not among the mighty, I well see,
For I know that my deeds earn little note,
And that, perhaps, is how it ought to be–
Unspoken words, at least, will stop no throat.
Yet still, I feel the call to sing in verse
On printed page, though I little rehearse.

Class Report: SPCH 275, 11 April 2018

After addressing questions from the previous class meeting, discussion turned to concerns of occasional speeches. Examples of speeches were considered, along with concerns of audience and content. Discussion ranged far afield.

Students were also reminded of upcoming assignments:

  • Discussions, due online before 0059 on 16 April 2018
  • Week 7 Homework, due online as a Word file before 0059 on 16 April 2018
  • Week 8 Presentation, due online before 0059 on 21 April 2018

Submission guidelines for the assignments are in the course shell.

The class met as scheduled, at 1800 in Room 108 of the San Antonio campus. The course roster listed five students enrolled, a decline of one from last week; three attended, assessed informally. Class participation was somewhat less robust than in previous weeks. No students attended Monday office hours.

In Response to Eric Schwitzgebel

On 4 June 2014, Eric Schwitzgebel’s “A Theory of Jerks” appeared on Aeon.com. In the piece, Schwitzgebel articulates a need for a theory of jerks before noting being in possession of one. He then advances a working definition and partial history of the term “jerk” before addressing the validity of his professorial approach to the topic. The article then situates jerkiness amid psychological constructions and in contrast to its antithesis–for Schwitzgebel, the “sweetheart”–before laying out overall justification for its treatment of jerkiness. Qualifications of the argument follow, and Schwitzgebel then notes the hierarchical direction of jerkiness before isolating a particular sub-set of jerks and concluding with a call to action for people to recognize and work against their own jerkiness. In all, the piece is an engaging read in the tradition of Frankfurt’s On Bullshit (which the article references, if briefly), one that displays, through its informed treatment of the mundane, some of the best features of public intellectualism.

I used the article with my class on 31 March 2018, having come across it earlier that week and deciding that the topic would make it of interest to my students. (That it references Frankfurt also attracted attention; I have done some taurascatological work from time to time, and the similarities delighted me.) After working through some of the vocabulary–Schwitzgebel writes as a professor, and my students are not yet so adept as that–they latched onto the piece tightly, wringing much from it and prompting a discussion that lasted for the better part of an hour. (Generally, the students will address topics for only fifteen to twenty minutes at a time, unless prodded.) They were able to identify a primary audience for the piece (to paraphrase, intellectual or pretentiously intellectual mainstream elite or elite-aspirant men), as well as its stated and tacit purposes, as well as to identify points of failure for the primary and other audiences. And their collective analysis of the piece helped to point out gendering of language (“jerk” and “sweetheart” both read as gendered to the students, as did some other terms in the piece), as well as to explore some of the parallels of academe to the broader working world. In all, it was a useful exercise, and it is one to which I think I will return with students in such classes in the future

Provided, of course, that I have them. Insofar as I remain in academe, I remain contingent.

Among the many things that struck me during the conversation, though, was how students reacted to the focus of the article: the jerk. One voiced disbelief that an academic–a philosophy professor, no less–would not only write a piece about jerks, but would use the word 90 times (according to a search function run in class), including in variants such as “jerkitude” (which term itself occasioned comment) in 3,600 words (per the article’s online paratext). But I think the disjunction between Schwitzgebel’s article and the student’s expectation of academic writing is an informative one, one tying to my own earlier comment about the article doing good work at public intellectualism. There is a disconnection between what academic writing is and what it is supposed to be–and between both and what it is perceived as being by those outside academe. The disconnection is amply attested by far better scholars than I (Cohen’s piece in Hardcastle and Resich’s Bullshit and Philosophy comes to mind as one example, and Birkenstein’s 2010 College English piece on Judith Butler comes to mind as another), so I will nor rehearse it here. It will suffice to say that academic writing is generally perceived as being pretentious and removed from everyday concerns, while it is necessarily concerned with precision (and not seldom loses clarity in the attempt to find and isolate the precise nuances that need discussion), and it is supposed to be directed towards the dissemination of information so that others can use it to make yet more new knowledge.

Part of doing that last, part of making new knowledge, lies in interrogating what we think we already know. We cannot leave unexamined the assumptions we make, even when, on the surface of them, we think we know what they are and mean. I often work with four-letter words in my classes; I not seldom have my students consider the word “blue,” a simple monosyllable that invariably shows up disagreement about what the world is and what the words are that get applied to those words.  “Jerk” seems to have functioned similarly, with some overall agreement about its meaning but little considerations of the small distinctions that will identify people as jerks or as something else entirely. And it does take some work to untangle such things, to be sure, particularly because the things being untangled seem so commonplace and obvious. But that some effort is required does not mean the work is not worth doing; quite the opposite is true. There is more to gain from the expenditure of effort, from the time taken to consider what is meant by even the simplest words, and what it reveals about us that we use them the ways we do, than we commonly understand and recognize.

Thanks to Schwitzgebel, my students have a bit better idea about that now. Thanks to him, also, I have a bit clearer idea in my head of what I might be able to mean when I use a word that I use perhaps too often already–along with no few other four-letter words I know. And while the former is of far more worth than the latter, I am grateful for both–and more.

Care to help me keep on going? You can do it here!

Class Report: ENGL 135, 7 April 2018

After addressing questions from the previous meeting, discussion turned to concerns of rebuttal and refutation. Incorporation of graphics into text was also discussed. Students were given an example of argumentative writing to review and treat in class. Also, attention was given to upcoming assignments, noted below:

  • Discussions, due online before 0059 on 9 April 2018
  • Course Project: Second Draft, due online as a Word document before 0059 on 2 April 2018

Submission guidelines for the assignments are in the course shell.

The class met as scheduled, at 0900 in Room 114 of the San Antonio campus. The course roster listed 13 students, unchanged since last class; three attended, assessed informally. Class participation was good. No students attended Monday office hours.