Infrequent blogging ahead 

I'm not going to be updating very much over the next week, because Friday is my official hand-in-the-dissertation date. (The defense is a couple of weeks later.) I can't tell whether my lack of panic at the moment is a good thing or a disastrous thing.

In the meantime, check out the Bad Poetry Index, the work of Seamus Cooney at Western Michigan University. Don't miss the entries from great canonical poets. The not-so-famous poets are no slouch, either; Theophilus Marzials' poem is so jaw-droppingly, hilariously bad that it rivals Douglas Adams' description of the worst poetry in the universe.

(Stern lecture to self: You're writing about some of the best poetry in the universe -- in your own opinion, at least -- and, despite the inevitable bouts of ennui that set in after working on it for years, you still love your topic. So quit whining, get back to the dissertation already, and stop wasting valuable time and laptop batteries playing Microsoft Pinball.)


Instant found poetry 

\Somewhere or other, in some collection of advice to poets -- and I would look up where, but I'm swamped with other, more serious research -- I read that one way to jump-start one's imagination is to read through first-line indexes of poetry anthologies. The juxtaposition of completely unrelated lines, especially if they're all from different poets, produces wonderfully surreal passages of accidental verse.

Well, the admirable Representative Poetry On-Line has both a first-line index and a last-line index, both of which yield gems of found poetry. Consider this, for instance, from the first-line index:

His golden locks time hath to silver turn'd;
His Grace! impossible! what, dead!
His tombstone tells a tale of woe--
Ho! is there any will ride with me,
Hog Butcher for the World.

Or, from the last-line index:

Fann'd the calm air upon the brow of Toil--
--Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!
Far, far behind, is all that they can say.
Far floats their down--far drifts my dream away.

This should be a parlor game. It really should.


Notes on the final stages of dissertation-writing 

1. Blogging is indeed addictive, especially when one is doing it as procrastination. And, at the same time, it's both a relief and an incentive to be able to write in such a different format.

2. Constant micro-editing (footnote formatting, spacing in bibliography, tinkering with margins, etc.) does not quite stave off the feeling of panic at still having to write the Big Important Thesis Statements in the introduction and conclusion.

3. However, Mozart's operas make everything much more bearable. Right now I'm listening to the last act of Così Fan Tutte. Lieto canto e suon giulivo empia il ciel d'ilarità! ("Let joyful song and jubilant music fill the air with gaiety!")

4. Really, Ezra Pound said it best:

O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Lend me a little tobacco-shop,
or install me in any profession
Save this damn'd profession of writing,
where one needs one's brains all the time.

(Ezra Pound, "The Lake Isle")

5. No, I take it back. Edward Gorey also said it best:

...with pen, ink, scissors, paste, a decanter of sherry, and a vast reluctance, Mr Earbrass begins to revise [his novel]. This means, first, transposing passages, or reversing the order of their paragraphs, or crumpling them up furiously and throwing them in the waste-basket. After that there is rewriting. This is worse than merely writing, because not only does he have to think up new things just the same, but at the same time try not to remember the old ones.

(Edward Gorey, The Unstrung Harp; Or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel)


Ack! Why has my sidebar migrated to the bottom of the page? Why have my older posts replaced it? Ack!

[Edit: Never mind, it seems to have gone back to normal now. I can't figure why, because I didn't change anything in the template that would have accounted for the rearrangement of sidebar and main column. Blogger hiccup?]

Just added to the blogroll 

Cindy's blog, making contact, featuring "random musings on teaching, academia, and life in general"--with an interesting post today about how the blogosphere can be what academia should be. (Okay, I'm also a bit biased because she called my blog "stunning" and now I'm madly chuffed, as the British would say.)

Also, Beyond Brilliance, Beyond Stupidity, a two-in-one blog tracking "developments in transportation, urban planning, design, the environment, the internet and many other vaguely related areas," with the brilliant developments on the left and the stupid ones on the right.


The new Chronicle of Higher Education has a short essay by Margaret Marquis and Brent Shannon, an academic couple both searching for jobs in English. They describe their parents' and stepparents' various concerns, and misconceptions, about the job market they face, and eventually acknowledge that "our parents, we must confess, have raised a crucial issue: In such a tight job market, why do we keep trying to find work teaching English? Why don't we do something else?"

The answer: because they genuinely love teaching, even though the deck is stacked against them:

[w]e have too much education to be employable outside of academe, and too little experience to be employable in it. We spend hours at conferences, publish articles in journals, and teach multiple courses, but the proportions are always off. And yet, we press forward. Because we know that at the end of 300 pages, Darcy will still marry Elizabeth, and at the end of 200 pages, Pheoby will still be listening, yet we will have noticed an infinite number of things that we never noticed before. And that's worth years of education and thousands of dollars in student loans and no tenure-track jobs.

Is it? I'm not so sure. I see in this determinedly optimistic conclusion an instance of a pattern I've been noticing a lot recently: the inversely proportional relationship between the fervor with which academics embrace their vocation and the actual availability of tenure-track positions. The worse the market looks, the more people insist, as the title of this essay does, "We're Happy. Really." (Or, in the words of the paragraph quoted above, "we have too much education to be employable outside academe.") I don't question Marquis and Shannon's commitment to teaching and research, or their love of literature. But there's something that makes me tired and depressed about the whole "well, there are no jobs, you're going to be poor and anxious and overworked, and you'll have very little choice in where you end up living -- but the immaterial rewards of a life of devotion to learning make it all worthwhile!" position.

Ironically, the Chronicle also provides advice on how to deprogram from this "I can't do anything else, and there's nothing else worth doing" mindset, as well as a whole archive of articles arguing that overeducated Ph.Ds can, in fact, be employable elsewhere.

Geoffrey Wilson's 1997 MLA talk "Neurotic Structure in the Academic Job Market" offers a psychoanalytic explanation of why we continue to invest so much energy in searching for jobs that aren't there: in Wilson's Lacanian terms, "The academic Other makes demands of us; it has explicit and implicit requirements we are expected to satisfy. The cost of complying with those demands is that we've given up some pleasure, but in doing so we are giving the Other the satisfaction of complying with its demands." Accordingly, we're reluctant to walk away because in so doing, we'd be leaving behind the pleasure, the parts of ourselves, that we sacrificed to academia. Writes Wilson, "We want to keep our proximity to this enjoyment and not let it out of our sight. It holds a permanent fascination for us." Makes complete sense to me. (And no, despite my earlier post from July 9th, I'm not opposed to theory per se, though I'm more interested in psychoanalysis than deconstruction. Actually, Wilson's formulation of the academic Other bears a certain resemblance to the specter of "the profession" that haunts Lisa Ruddick's article.)


Somewhere, beyond the sea... 

An analogy I came up with in conversation with my friend T. last night (we were at our local wine bar eating mussels and getting ready to read Book 2 of Paradise Lost out loud, because we are geeky like that): Writing a dissertation is like undertaking a really long sea voyage. After a while, there's no land in sight; there's just you and the open sea. You can tell where you are, more or less, but it takes a certain amount of skill to navigate. Eventually you start to forget what land looks like. Every once in a while, your committee members sail up alongside you and you exchange signals, but then they sail away. Meanwhile, you have plenty of things to occupy you -- the occasional storm, the problem of what to do when the wind dies down, dwindling food supplies, scurvy -- but there's also a fair amount of blankness and boredom. All the same, it's a routine you get used to. And clearly, I have been reading too much Patrick O'Brian in my off-hours.

(I've never had scurvy myself. But at my undergraduate alma mater, there were rumors that impoverished graduate students would occasionally show up at the university hospital with a classic case of it, the result of living for too long on ramen noodles. Ever since then I've been careful about my vitamin C intake, even at my most broke.)

My own dissertation is almost done; I can actually see land now. I said this, with a mixture of relief and terror (less than two weeks to finish the blasted thing, and so many footnotes still need fixing). T., who's halfway through her dissertation, said "I'm still at sea, and I can't even see any birds." "No albatrosses, even?" I asked her. She said no. Then we raised our glasses, wished each other luck, and drank to the prospect of finishing the voyage.

Career-changing for curmudgeons 

In the midst of thinking about switching careers, it's occurred to me that one measure of where one's interests lie, along the lines of "What accomplishments are you most proud of?" or "What sections do you most gravitate to in bookstores?" (from Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius's book So What Are You Going to Do with That?), could be "What are you most compelled to fix?" In other words, what bothers you enough to make you seriously want change it and make it better? I'm put off by sloppy grammar and usage; ugly typography; websites with unnecessarily complicated or ungainly navigation; and badly-designed public spaces and public amenities. * Oh, and the state of higher education, if that wasn't already apparent. As the WRK4US list gears up for a discussion on finding one's mission in life, I've been thinking that a critical sense finely honed on mountains of student papers could be turnned to one's advantage in the search for redefinition.

A less curmudgeonly approach might be: "What do people ask you for help with?" In my case: Latin translation, computer troubleshooting, the fine points of prose style, and obscure poetry references. (A friend once asked me to gloss the phrase "dresser of deal" from Wallace Stevens' "The Emperor of Ice-Cream," and was impressed when I could do so on the spot.) Not that there's a huge market out there for people who can spout Wallace Stevens trivia, but still.

The only thing is, this doesn't seem to add up to a career path when taken all together. Damn it all. Must think of something else.

(Addendum: Dorothea Salo has an interesting post about reinventing one's professional identity through experimentation rather than introspection. I think I'm currently stuck at the introspection stage, but the book Dorothea recommends might help me get out of that stage.)

* For instance: The other day, catching the bus, I found myself wondering why the Collegeville Transit Authority had seen fit to install new bus shelters that seat about four people and offer neither shelter from the wind (there are no side walls, just a scaffold-like frame) nor shelter from the sun (the pathetic little awning is made of a translucent plastic). And I had a letter halfway-drafted in my head to the effect that even I, layperson that I am, could have done a better job anticipating what people actually need from a bus shelter. Harrumph. And then I started to think, what if I could get paid to say that?



Canadians have become cooler than Americans. Emigration is looking like a better and better idea all the time.

Speaking of... 

Speaking of electronic texts (e. g. the online Anatomy of Melancholy), I've been doing distributed proofreading for Project Gutenberg. There's no pay, but it appeals to the side of me that enjoys editorial tinkering, and one can sample all kinds of forgotten old books.

Renascence Editions publishes free e-texts of important early modern English books. It makes me very happy that one can find Sir Philip Sidney's Defence of Poesie, Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia, and Samuel Daniel's Defence of Ryme (a current research obsession of mine) on the web, complete with footnotes. And one can volunteer to help them with further editions. Maybe after my dissertation is finished...

Also, I think Octavo Digital Rare Books is my dream company. Working with really cool old books and getting to create searchable digital text-and-image versions of them -- I could really see myself doing this. I wonder if they're hiring.

And speaking of academic melancholy: both Timothy Burke and Gary Sauer-Thompson have posted followups to Invisible Adjunct's post of a few days ago. The former writes movingly of what's for me a familiar feeling, namely "[t]he haunting sense that one did not know enough to speak, that one did not possess all the theory necessary to 'ground' the more homely details of one’s research." The latter links the "deep disquiet in academia" with nihilism, and connects the discussion to an earlier post, in which he writes, "There are other ways to engage in intellectual practice. There are other forms of life that are more supportive. There are other conversations going on in civil society outside academia." Including these conversations in the blogosphere, which (as someone already said somewhere, but I don't have the links handy) provide one possible model for intellectual practice outside the university setting.