Archive for the ‘Blah blah blah writing blah blah’ Category

I can’t believe I’m halfway through the week that is spring break.  I’ve gotten some good work done, but I also feel like I don’t feel like doing the work that remains.  What remains?

  • Revisions on an article, which are due by month’s end.
  • Revisions on another article, to submit to another journal.
  • Reckoning with the various pieces of my book manuscript and really making a plan to get the whole thing “finished” (well, in a state where it has a beginning, a middle and an end, so then I can revise it with the hope of sending it out).
  • Send an email to the editor that expressed interest in the book project.

Basically, I need probably 3 solid days of work to accomplish these three things, but I’m feeling a decided lack of motivation today.  So what I need to do is really just to make a decision: do I take today off, with a plan of getting back to work tomorrow through Saturday?  Or do I force myself to do some work today, even though all I want to do is watch television and knit?  Oh, decisions, decisions.

I’m actually pretty happy with what I’ve accomplished so far this break.  I did some cleaning, I did some preparatory stuff for making my application for full professor (which I should note I feel like it’s too soon to do, but there are political reasons why I should submit an application in the fall regardless of my “feelings” – and since there is no penalty for going up and being rejected, it really is worth it to do it), I’ve gotten myself well ahead on reading for the end of the semester – only 3 books that I really should reread (re-skim, really, for I have good notes in all of them) remain!, I wrote and submitted another abstract for consideration for another MLA panel (I’ve put myself in the running for three panels, two of which are special sessions, so I felt the need to hedge my bets since I really want to go to MLA but I also know that if I want to get funded I need to be on the program and special sessions are in no way guaranteed, and that’s even assuming that I get selected for the proposals -although I do know already I’ve been selected for one of the special sessions, which is a combined allied organization panel, so I’m hopeful that will be accepted).  I’ve gotten some knitting done, too.  All in all, I should probably put a little less pressure on myself.

I guess the issue is that I know that once this week is over that I’m going to be slammed for the next 8 weeks, and I fear that if I “waste” this time with things like, I don’t know, rest and relaxation, I’ll regret it later.  Probably what I should do, though, since rest and relaxation are not a waste of time, is split the difference, and do some work and some relaxing, and give myself permission not to accomplish all the things.  We’ll see.

And really I do need to knit.  I’m just half-way done with the wrap I’m knitting for HS BFF’s wedding in August, and given the fact that I started on it in like October, that means I’ve got to make some serious progress for it to be ready in time.  Here it is so far:

What you can’t really see in the photo is that the yarn is flecked with gold, so it shimmers quite prettily.  Yes, I think at the very least I’m going to knit for a couple of hours right now.  Time enough for revisions once I’ve gotten some knitting out of my system.  It is spring break, after all 🙂

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Dr. Virago has a great post up about feeling that she’s in a “mid-career rut,” and so much of what she writes about is so important, I think, and I think it’s important for those of us who’ve leaped over that hurdle that is “earning tenure” to keep writing about our experiences because, as Virago notes, most of us have another 30 or so years in this gig after we do that.  “Mid-Career” – as I wrote in a post about teaching – is a really freaking long time for most of us, so there are going to be various iterations of what that looks like at different points in that LONG trajectory.

But before I get to some specific points that I want to engage with in Virago’s post, I want to begin with the metaphor of the “rut.”  When we say we are “in a rut,” we are using a transportation metaphor.  It’s all about furrows that develop along a track or road, and at a certain point, those furrows get deep enough that one can’t turn off the track or road.  Things get a little boring, a little rote.  And they also can feel a little bumpy, and you don’t have the luxury of dodging the bumps.  I think it’s no mistake that those of us who’ve been on a “track” for years – the tenure-track, the Ph.D. track, the “accelerated track” in elementary and high school – might find that ruts have developed over the course of that time.  But whereas being “on track” is a good thing – on track to finishing the dissertation, on track to getting a job, on track to earning tenure, on track for promotion – being “in a rut” is a bad thing.

Why?  I mean, I’m really asking that.  Because it seems to me that ruts aren’t necessarily more limiting than tracks.  It’s just that we see being on track as being focused and motivated and making progress, whereas we see being in a rut as being stuck.  Except, actually, both tracks and ruts can be limiting.  Being on track means that you can’t make a random left turn without jumping the tracks.  And both tracks and ruts can be productive, too.  Being in a rut means that you don’t have to plow through obstacles in order to get where you’re going; you can use the rut to guide you and to let you move ahead without having to focus all of your energy on where you’re going.  But the negative connotation of being “in a rut” makes us feel slow or stopped or not engaged, whereas the positive connotation of being “on track” makes us feel like we’re getting somewhere, even though we are no more “free” on a track than we are in a rut.

In some ways, part of what I’ve struggled with over the past two years is learning how to use some ruts I’m in to my advantage, as opposed to resisting them.  And I’ve also been doing a little back-and-forth – reversing and going forward, reversing and going forward, with slight adjustments to the steering wheel, much like when you’re stuck in a snow mound and trying to get yourself out of the ruts in the snow that the wheels have made to get back on the road.  I’m not saying that I’ve done everything “right” or that I’m totally out of the rut that I’ve perceived myself to be in for a bit of time…. but I am feeling a lot more satisfied right now than I have felt probably, well, ever.

So, the first thing that I want to respond to from Virago’s post is this:

So there’s a way in which I’m active in the area that got me the job, got me tenure, and so forth. But I haven’t really produced anything new in it in some time, and I’m frustrated by that. I have something in progress (an article), but I keep dithering about whether to do the relatively fast and easier version of it and get it *out* there in one of the subfield journals, or keep working on the more theoretically ambitious version of it, which involves me learning (or continuing to learn) all sorts of new stuff and would be sexier for the broader medieval and medieval-renaissance journals. The learning part is attractive, but it’s also slow. And I have been sitting on this thing for a long time now because it keeps getting shunted aside.

First of all, let me just note that Virago has accomplished so much since tenure that she isn’t giving herself enough credit for and that probably is propelling her forward in ways that she doesn’t realize yet.  But I also recognize that feeling that I’ve said what I had to say about my last topic, and I have a new idea, but it just seems too gigantic and complicated to pursue it as it should be pursued, properly, and so then other stuff gets in the way of it.

What I’m about to say here is not some edict of How Things Must Be Done, but I’ve come to a perspective in the past couple of years that if I’m going to try to do new stuff, think new thoughts, post-book and post-tenure, then I have to do two things: 1) I have to make those new things my first priority, no matter how painful that is, and 2) I have to give myself permission not to worry about the final product fitting the “ideal” version in my head.

Of course, those two things are also the things that one needs to do in order to finish a dissertation.  At least for me, though, I had to relearn those lessons post-tenure, because the stakes for my “reputation” (ha! such that it is) feel higher.  “I’m supposed to know how to do this now!  I can’t embarrass myself! What if all of the stuff I accomplished pre-tenure was just residual effects of my dissertation work, and thus really about my adviser and committee, and what if I really, in spite of those accomplishments, am still a fraud?”  That’s often been my inner voice post-tenure.  And I’ve had to learn to turn off that fucked up inner voice, because, as I tell my students, new ideas and new projects are supposed to make us uncomfortable!  It’s such an easy thing to say to students!  Why is it so hard to remember that for ourselves?  But, for me, it has been hard to remember.

Virago then goes on to talk about two (I think) related issues in her current “rut” – first, that she feels like her field has “passed her by” in certain ways, so ideas she has had aren’t “current” or “interesting” given where the field is now, and second, that while she started on what was to be her Next Book during her 2010-2011 sabbatical, she still doesn’t see the whole project in her head, and she feels like she’s having to learn a whole new body of knowledge, which is slow work, in the interstices of regular professional commitments, like teaching.

If I can talk about the difference between my work in graduate school, which led to my first book, and the work that I’m doing now, I would say that I’ve been forced to learn that I need to be much more efficient – that I can’t expect that I’m going to be able to focus exclusively on the New Idea until it is fully formed, but rather that I need to produce as much as I can when I can and then later hope it will all fit together, and so far that’s working-ish – and also that I need to be much more opportunistic – in the sense that I need to pursue every idea and every opportunity (research-wise) without worrying about whether it’s hip or new or awesome or whatever.  I teach a 4/4 load and I’ve done some major heavy-lifting with service.  The fact of the matter is, I don’t have the luxury to pick and choose between my ideas, nor do I have the luxury of uninterrupted time.  (Though I’m going to say something very different in a bit about taking “every opportunity” – I’m only talking about research here.)  I suppose my point here is, I have taken a sort of relaxed approach to my research in some ways: I figure that if I produce (and produce and produce), I’ll figure out what is “new” or what is “appropriately framed” whether through readers’ reports or editorial feedback or whatever.  I no longer have the luxury of trying to consult with my crystal ball, not while working a full-time job as a tenured professor.  In some ways, frankly, that is liberating.

Then Virago writes:

Half the time I just want to throw my hands up and say, “Fuck it, I’d rather be teaching. Maybe I should move to a 4/4 load and give up research.” Except that wouldn’t make me happy, either. In fact, part of the problem is that I’m isolated in my work and don’t have the stimulation of other people in my field or advanced students working on dissertations to teach me new things and keep me current. Giving up on research entirely would exacerbate that feeling and make my rut deeper (even if I keep reinventing my courses, which I always do). And it wouldn’t be good for the students, because one of things that keeps my teaching from being in a rut is bringing in new ideas from my research and others’ (that often includes new-to-me primary texts — there’s a lot of stuff out there that I don’t know and research of various kinds introduces me to it).

As I noted, I teach a 4/4. And I do research.  So.  But so how do I do that?  Yes, I do it from updating my courses, and yes, I do it through my own independent research.  But, in part, I keep up with the research in my field through the work that my undergrads (and my rare MA students) do.  I assign annotated bibliographies in every course I teach now.  And I make guidelines that require students to include at least a certain number of sources that were published within the past three years.  Those annotated bibliographies have been my savior, frankly, because I don’t have the time to just read journals in my field for enrichment.  I also design presentation assignments and book review assignments and literature review assignments for my students that contribute immeasurably to me keeping up with what’s going on in my field.  (And, frankly, even more generally in my teaching field, because with four courses, 2 of which are typically general education, not all of those students are focused on what I’m writing about right now, but they sure are engaged with my teaching areas.)  Teaching and research, I believe, must be reciprocal.  That means that not only does my independent research inform my teaching, but also that my teaching must inform my research.

I know that isn’t possible in all fields, but I think it’s often possible to find a way to make that happen in some fashion if one is creative about what that means.  (Note: I have colleagues who design assignments that are a lot more “creative” and “fun” than what my students do, but I’ll also say that mine are no less student-centered, in that my assignments tend to be the ones that teach my students those valuable skills that get them into graduate and professional school and into full-time jobs upon graduation.  Do I wish my students found my assignments more “fun?”  Sometimes.  But most of the time I’m happy that they are well integrated into my own intellectual projects and that they teach them skills they need to embark on serious intellectual projects of their own.)

And then Virago talks about isolation.  She writes:

Remember when we used to think romantically how digital communications would solve the problem of the isolation of the single scholar who’s the only one in her field at her institution?  Yeah. Right. Frankly, social media and other digital outlets just make me feel *more* isolated. All I see are the cool collaborations and energetic conversations of colleagues who get to talk face-to-face as well as online, and I feel shut out.

What I say here is going to sound strange, maybe, but this is why I totally don’t do social media in my field or blogs in my field.  And I’ve never even toyed with the idea.  I am Fb friends with some people in my field, which is grand, but that’s because they are my friends.  Just like it’s not good to watch the news 24/7, it’s not good to be tapped into all of the conversations in one’s field 24/7.

What I’ve done instead is to cultivate relationships within my department with people outside of my field about research and writing.  No, they don’t know “all the things” in my field, and I don’t know those things in theirs, but they are my… intellectual reservoir… if that makes sense.  Now, it’s worth noting that I was the only person in my (tiny) grad program working in my area while I was in residence, so I’m used to doing this.  And it would be a hell of a lot harder if all my grad school friends who were local had been in my field: I would have felt a much greater sense of loss upon arriving in my current locale, I know.

I guess what I think, about the whole “I don’t have local people who do what I do!” thing, is that this is ok for me.  But it’s only ok because I have lovely friends elsewhere who talk about stuff in my field with me, and I have lovely friends here who might not be in my field but whom are my intellectual soul-mates: we can talk about theory and the discipline and teaching and service – no, they can’t talk about my specific authors with me in more than a cursory way, but all those other things are so important to me, too!  And also: I am (and always have been) weirdly isolationist in my ideas about scholarship.  I like the idea that I might come up with an idea that isn’t informed by (or indebted to) the current conversation.  Sure, I’ll need to inform myself about that before writing up my wacko idea, and I’ll be excited to do that, but if I waited for being regularly involved in the “current field-specific conversation” to have an idea, well, I’d never have one.

Finally, Virago asks:

What say you, oh wise people of the internet? How do I shake off the doldrums? Do you ever feel like this? What do you do to shake off the Blahs and get out of the rut?

I’ve already responded in some ways to these questions.  But here’s where I turn to the metaphorical rut/track stuff at the beginning of the post.  In some ways, I’ve embraced my rut.  It’s great that people know who I am, how I think, and what I have done, and that I get opportunities because of that.  Am I sometimes bored by being the go-to person about x way of approaching y author?  Sure.  But it doesn’t mean that this approach is boring, and, frankly, isn’t that why we all write a first book?  So those things will fall into our laps?  And it’s nice, sometimes, to write an invited article that is right in one’s wheelhouse and that doesn’t push us into new territory – and doing so can even help to generate a new idea in spite of the fact that it’s just going along inside the rut.

But the way that I’ve approached getting out of the rut has been through pursuing things like grants and workshop opportunities outside of my university.  It has been through being much more selective about service – basically after having been a slave to it for four years, I’ve now realized that it’s not my turn anymore, and I have more important things to do with my energy.  It has been through developing new courses (as much work as that is) as opposed to just redesigning ones in my wheelhouse.

But really, emotionally?  It has been through realizing that tenure means never having to say you’re sorry.  I’m no longer on a track, and that is liberating.  I can pursue an idea that turns out to be nothing, and that is totally ok.  I can try something out and have it fail disastrously, and not only won’t I lose my job for that, but also it might lead me to the next amazing thing that I will do.  I no longer have to be “on track.”  I have earned the right to go off the track.  And sometimes that will land you in a rut, but sometimes it will land you on the open road.

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So, I had all these plans about what would happen during this break, and some of those plans have happened, and others of them, well, they have not.  I was thrown a curve-ball by a nasty cold involving (this is gross, just skip to the next paragraph if you are a delicate flower) a great deal of mucus.  Gross.  And inconvenient.

I am a little concerned about the way that writing has fallen by the wayside, but it’s really hard to write when you’ve got a head-cold.  Because, you know, writing involves needing your head to be in the right place.  (You might want to note at this point that what I’m doing – in between blowing my nose and whining – right at this very moment is writing. But this isn’t real writing, in the sense of needing to think terribly hard.  It’s just one long complaint.  It seems that is all I can manage with a head-cold.)

So, while I’ve not been writing, I have been doing some other things that are worthwhile.  I’ve gotten the letters of reference that I owed to students done, I’ve finished two books – the David Foster Wallace biography (not terribly illuminating, but I did enjoy reading about his friendship with Jonathan Franzen) and Gone Girl (FUN FUN FUN!!!!) – and I’m nearly done rereading and annotating The Marriage Plot, which I’ll be teaching for the first time this spring.

I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about the shape of the book, and about how the whole thing works as a complete document, as opposed to thinking just about the parts of the book, and this is work that I’ve needed to do, and frankly it’s not work that is easy to do when you don’t have a big block of unstructured time.  And so I’m trying to be kind to myself about the lack of words getting written, because I can definitely write words during the academic semester, but I can’t really do the kind of deep and wandering thinking that I’ve been doing (while in an over-the-counter-drug haze) when I’m also doing teaching and all the other day-to-day commitments of the semester.

And I also need to be grateful for the fact that I am not at MLA (even though I’m jealous of everybody who is at MLA) this year, because having all this time is a direct consequence of the fact that I’m not there.  And also: how much would it suck to have this cold and to do MLA at the same time?  Totally.

Another thing I’ve accomplished this week is that I made tons of appointments – doctors, dentist, vet, car.  By the by: it seems this is a great time of year to make such appointments, as I’ve been able to get all of these scheduled for within the next two weeks, which I feel like is wonderful.  Something I really hate is making appointments.  I also hate having to go to them, but it’s the making of them that is really my biggest problem.

So, the plan for today is that I’m going to try to buckle down and do a good deal of writing, work out (as I am feeling a bit better and I can at least go for a walk or something), continue to rest up and take care of my evil cold, and do some laundry and stuff around the house.  Will I be able to do all of those things?  We shall see.  I feel hopeful, given that I did wake up at 5:30 this morning with energy and have already accomplished more today than I’ve accomplished in the past two days.

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Wondering where I’ve been?  I’ve been writing an article.  I began writing actual words on Saturday, and today I have sent the draft off.  It is either a brilliant reinterpretation of the novel around which the essay collection is organized, or it is a totally unsupportable bunch of hooey.  Whatever: it is submitted!  Now time to do things that aren’t related to writing and moaning!  Happy holidays, folks!  I’ll return after Christmas!

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that somewhere around the three-week mark in any romance, I lose my ability to sustain full-time infatuation (although part-time infatuation continues to reign supreme).  Luckily, I think, this seems to be the same time-frame for (crap, I need a pseudonym for him… let’s go with…) The Dude.  I mean, we still like each other and everything, but now that we’ve declared ourselves and have agreed to be “boyfriend-girlfriend” and whatnot, we can focus on reality once again.

Which, frankly, is a welcome reprieve from all of the mushy stuff, because I’ve got some shit to do.  (Though I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I am concerned about how things work going forward, since infatuation does blind one to the other’s flaws, and since infatuation also blinds one to the irritating things about maintaining an actual “relationship,” which means that I have now entered the “picking” phase of things, which could have deleterious effects on the whole “ridiculously in love” business, though I’m hopeful that this time – ha! – will be different. I should note that The Dude remains awesome, and I have no reason to think that he will transform into somebody non-awesome anytime soon. Anyway.)

Reality for me means the article for which I’ve already gotten an extension, which MUST be done before Christmas.  So I spent the day wrestling with it, and while I know what I want to say, and while I know that what I want to say is ultimately really freaking cool, translating what I want to say into what I’m actually writing is, perhaps, a bit more of a challenge than I’d like for it to be.  Perhaps (though I hope not, but it feels like it right now) it is impossible.

The problem is actually with the literary text that I’m analyzing, which is unusual (although not totally unheard of) for me.  Typically, I do great when I’m analyzing the literary text, and where I have trouble is with critical and theoretical context – with “showing my work” as it were.  With this article, though, the crucial bit of the literary text that I need to quote and analyze is… well, it defies what I’m trying to do.  And not just because I’m me: it clearly has defied every other critic, because nobody has written about this part of the novel in a sustained way with any conviction.  (I’m not saying that to be douchey – it’s just everybody has talked about this part in ways that make judgements about the whole but that fail to handle the language of the section.) Probably (it now occurs to me) because it’s so seemingly impossible to break out pithy quotes for careful analysis.

The good news is that I’ve run into this particular problem before in my scholarly work, and I do actually know how to resolve it.  The bad news is that resolving this sort of a problem is hard freaking work and it takes all of my concentration and sustained periods of time, which, of course, as I’m at the end of my semester, is not ideal.  Especially because I am like the host for a bunch of anxious parasites right now (and yes, that’s how I’m describing my students, for with all of their insecurities and anxieties that I have to assuage, I do feel like they are eating up all of my reserves of strength).

I got some good work done today, though, and I anticipate having 2 full days this weekend to commit myself to writing.  This means that I’ll need to bail on CF’s cocktail party. It also means that I’ll need to resist the temptation to boy-craziness, though this task is made easier since the novel that I’m writing about is decidedly cynical about the probability of ever finding fulfillment in a love relationship.

(Note: it might be possible that the reason I’ve been single for, lo, these many years is that I have until very, very recently chosen to focus on literary texts that are very cynical about romantic love. It also might be possible that the reason I have fallen in love right now is because of the grant proposal that I wrote in which I proposed a course that is all about romantic love, and in the course of putting that proposal together and designing a syllabus for that course, which I will try out for the first time in the Spring, that I’ve been forced to take romantic love seriously instead of cynically.  And it might be possible that I give books way too much credit for my state of mind and heart.)

So.  Love vs. Work.  Love and work.  Love is work.  Whatever.  I need to write a fucking article.



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So, upon finishing up teaching (and doing a service thing) on Thursday night, my fall break commenced.  I have (had) big plans for this break, which involve(d) a lot of writing.

You know what I’ve accomplished so far?  Nada.  Zilch.  Zippo.  Well, in terms of the writing.  Apparently, I needed to take two days sleeping (like, literally: sleeping in the day and in the night) and in the interim reading crap.

Did I need to do this?  Probably.  Do I already regret it?  Yep.

Because I really need to write.  I can’t afford to waste this giant (for the middle of semester) block of time.  But I also needed to rest….

So I made a list, and I looked at the first major thing on it, which is slightly more major than I’d imagined it in my head.

Whatever.  It will be ok.  Tomorrow through Wednesday, it is on.  I will buckle down.  But it’s ok that I took two days for rest.  Indeed, I’ve got to believe that the two days of rest will be good for productivity (whether or not that’s “true” is another question, but I need to believe it).

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So, a few months ago, I sent a version of a chapter of my book out to what is one of the most selective journals in my field.  This week, it was rejected.

Which, yes, of course, I didn’t like or anything, because who likes to be rejected?  But.  It does occur to me that these rejections sting a whole lot less these days than they did only a few years ago.  And actually, this rejection was very, very productive.

So why does the rejection sting less?

On the one hand, both of the readers’ reports were actually very positive about the submission, for rejections.  They offered really helpful suggestions for revision, ones that confirmed what I’d suspected about the essay in the first place, and which will contribute to my revisions for the book manuscript (from which this article was excerpted… which let’s note was part of the problem – that this was an excerpt).  Neither was like, “Oh, this is garbage!” but rather, “this article just isn’t where an article for this particular journal needs to be.”  Frankly, I’m not sure I’ve ever received more constructive or positive rejections of my work.  To get two rejections that include very strong compliments about the loveliness of my critical prose (which, you know what? is totally lovely), the incisiveness of my close readings of the literature, and the idea itself?  Yeah, that’s pretty cool.  The problem was in the execution of the argument through my close readings and in situating the argument theoretically, which I thought might be a problem when I submitted it in the first place. But submitting it meant I could move on to other writing things this summer, which I really needed to do.  And hey, now I’ve got great feedback, and it’s going to make this stronger, in the end, and will enable me to place the article elsewhere (a) and will make the book chapter stronger (b).  So thank you, anonymous peer reviewers!  Your generosity and careful attention to my article is going to make what I do better, and I am so appreciative of that!

On the other hand, what made this rejection sting less (every time I think about the sting of rejection, I hear this in my head) is the fact that I now regularly serve as a peer reviewer for journals.  This is only something that has begun to happen in the past 5 or 6 years with any regularity, and it’s changed my perspective about reviewers’ comments.  When I peer review, I take that job very seriously.  I really am trying to help the author – even when I really hate what the author writes – to make the article better.  Ironically, I was writing a recommendation to reject an article at the very same moment that I got my own rejection.  Did that change my comments on the article that I was reviewing?  No.  Instead, it made me read the reviewers comments to my own rejected article with generosity.  Because none of this, when it works properly, is personal.  It really is one of the rare instances where what we do is about the scholarship, and not about networking or self-promotion or the “game” of academics.  I used to take every criticism of my writing or my scholarship as “personal.”  I realize, by virtue of the fact that I’ve been on the other side, that it really isn’t.

Now, that isn’t to say that one might not disagree with a reviewer.  Of course one might.  One does.  I do.  But when I got rejected this week, I didn’t take it as a verdict on my intellect, or a verdict on my ability to make a contribution to the scholarly conversation.  I took it as an honest commentary on what I submitted, and as something that I can then use to improve what I had submitted so that it will find a home someplace else.  Does it suck that I have to do the work to incorporate that feedback?  Sure.  But I can do that with a few days of solid work, and it will be worth it.  And it’s not about me sucking – or even about what I submitted sucking: it’s about making something that is beautifully written and which has many strong points infinitely stronger.  In this case at least, it’s not about scrapping everything I’ve already done.  It’s about building and refining, which is always a good thing.

But what all of this leads me to thinking about is my students.  The problem with being a student (well, one of them) is that your work is so connected to you, individually, and not to a broader conversation.  And I think that this is a problem that we as professors exacerbate in some ways, in that we don’t necessarily offer constructive critique to out strongest students – we let them believe that everything that they will do will garner praise.  And then they go on in their lives – whether in a conventional job or in graduate work – and people criticize them.  And, oh, does it sting.  Because they think it’s all about them.  I know I did.

And while I try with my students to emphasize that they are part of a broader conversation and to give them criticism toward that end, one of the problems is that they don’t get that effort from every professor.  If they get it only from me, then I’m a bitch.  If they get it only from me, then it is personal, between me and them.  And then the word gets around and a lot of students avoid that bitch Dr. Crazy.

And sure, my students come back, say, a few years later, to tell me that they appreciate me, but wouldn’t it be better if all of us were sending them a uniform message the whole time – not waiting for them to get to law school to send an email into the ether that pushing on their writing helped, or waiting for them to get into a graduate program to send an email into the ether that forcing them to have their own ideas and develop their own topics and to write in clear, thoughtful, deliberate prose helped?  What if we taught them that “rejection” wasn’t a failure, and what if we taught them that saying something wasn’t good enough wasn’t saying that they aren’t good enough?

What if it wasn’t about “grading,” in the sense that we usually do it, which is fairly individualized and which doesn’t relate a hell of a lot to the way that we ourselves are evaluated, and what if instead we really thought about the students’ contributions to a world of ideas?

What if students learned that you can be doing A work and still have it not be good enough?  Wouldn’t that be preferable to students thinking that an “A” meant perfection?

Am I sure of how to achieve that?  No.  Do I try every day to achieve that?  Yes.  But that’s also why a fair few students avoid working with me.  It only works if we all do it, and we all don’t.

Whatever the case, it’s been good for me to learn that one can be rejected and still be great.  And I hope that the students who take courses with me or work under my direction learn that, too.  But I’d much rather that this approach wouldn’t be all about me and my grand ideas: I much rather that this approach were the norm rather than the exception.


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