acquiring, collecting, reading, adapting

Category: benefits of not being an academic

The Efforts of Writing

Before this post begins in earnest, I have two random observations:

  • I knew I wanted to write a blog post today, so this morning I was mulling over possible topics. I have a memory of being in the shower and composing in my head a blog post involving a crucial digression about the French feminists and l’ecriture feminine. Now, twelve hours later, I have no idea why I felt the need at 8am to defend the French feminists (though I have for years thought they are generally misunderstood).
  • My cat had to go to the vet yesterday and has seemed exhausted and a little defeated ever since, so I’ve been trying to be extra nice to her. So even though I really wanted to write tonight, when she climbed on my lap I felt like I couldn’t refuse her. Now I’m writing this with the laptop balanced on the edge of the couch at about a 45 degree angle–with me leaning over to the left in order to type–because I can’t put the computer on my lap while my cat is there. The things  we do for love.

Although I thought the above would be random observations, now that I have written them, I realize they are both telling reflections on the efforts of writing, some of which involve the tragicomic frustration of a lost idea, some of which involve the sheer physical effort (which is really a mental effort of course) of sitting down at the keyboard and writing something other than a facebook status update.

It is not news that writing takes a great deal of effort, but it’s something that bears repeating, I think.

Today I was developing a workshop for advanced students who have taken on summer-long, self-directed research projects, all of which will require some kind of written product. The takeaway of my workshop, though I am not saying this explicitly of course, is: you need to write more. And sooner, And more often. I mean really, what other advice is there? I am reminded of a student I had a few years ago; I was trying to give him some feedback on additional research he needed to do and more he needed to add to the paper he was writing. He was with me for a while, but at a certain point, he turned to me in disbelief and said, “Writing a research paper is so time-consuming!” Truer words were never spoken. This was a revelation to him, and not a welcome one.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a real writing project. This summer, I have a goal for a work-related article, but while this is a good goal, I also want to have a personal writing project as well. I have a funny hang-up about starting a writing project, which is this: at any given moment, I have several half-baked ideas for writing projects, but I often do not follow through on them because choosing one to develop means not choosing the others. (The loss of an idea.) But also, they are all ideas for long projects, and I am fearful of the time and energy I need to put into them to make them successful. (The sheer physical effort, which is really a mental effort.)

One of the benefits of not having a tenure-track job is that I don’t have the pressure to publish anything, so I can write anything I want at any time I want. And this lack of restriction has allowed me to write some really fun things, like my article for Bitch magazine or the series for the academic blog about the history of drugs. But it also means, of course, that I need to motivate myself, because no one and nothing else is pushing me, and self-motivation is difficult for almost everyone. As much as I genuinely do enjoy writing, almost anything else is easier, so I might as well do those other things. It also turns out–this is no surprise to anyone who knows me personally–I find too much choice to be debilitating. So not having a defined project means inertia.

What I know I need to do is follow the advice of the great Anne Lamott and take it “bird by bird.” Easier said than done. But maybe writing about my reluctance will help.


Benefits of not being an academic #2: No more academic conferences

When I began graduate school, I loved presenting at conferences and even going to them (I will admit that I have always preferred to present than to listen at conferences, and if that says something about me, so be it). At the final conference I went to, I had to remove myself from the conference area on several occasions because being there was making me feel physically ill and emotionally drained. How did this transformation happen?

When I started going to conferences, back when I still really liked them, I went to quite a few in crappy locations, such as Cortland, NY (sorry if you’re from there), Tuscaloosa, AL (my apologies for calling your location crappy), and Pittsburg, PA (yes, I said it). Occasionally I got to go to nice locations, too, but then was not supposed to see the location because I should have been at the conference, a rule I followed at first and then increasingly shirked. Eventually I decided I would only go to a conference if it was in a location I wanted to visit or if it was a conference I was genuinely interested in and was attended by established scholars. But I don’t think these considerations had much to do with my very bad final conference experience. True, it was in a location I considered exceedingly crappy (Cleveland, OH — my sincere apologies to my good friend Meg who grew up there; I’m sure it has its charms and I know my encounter with the city was brief and limited); however, it was also a conference I was very much interested in and had enjoyed in the past.

So, then, what’s wrong with academic conferences, at least in the field of literary studies? I will try to explain in a few brief points.

1. Nearly unrelenting social awkwardness. Why would anyone think it is a good idea to take a bunch of academics, most of whom are shy social misfits who feel much more comfortable in a library with a book than having a conversation with a stranger, and throw them in a room together to “mingle” and “network” during a “cocktail hour”? Networking is why I didn’t go into the corporate world, people! (Ok, it’s not the only reason.) It is my sincere opinion that there is far too much alcohol consumption in academia, and this is part of the reason why. Also, I think a lot of academics imagine themselves as people who look chic and cosmopolitan with a glass of wine or martini in their hands, when really they should probably just embrace their geekiness and stop obsessing over their desire to appear chic and cosmopolitan.

2. Bad behavior by your advisors and other professors. Yes, they’re only human, but as a graduate student (or recent alum), you can’t help but expect them to behave in an exemplary manner, modeling correct conference etiquette for their students. But no. They do things like sleep through your panel, or come in halfway through your panel, after you’ve given your paper, or leave right after your paper is finished (it’s nice they came, but it’s so rude not to stay for the whole panel!), or go over their time limit on their own panel, or wear inappropriate clothing to their paper presentation, or have a party and don’t invite you, or get drunk at the party they did invite you to. [Please note: these things have been observed by me and by my friends; I can understand how, if they had only happened to me, you might think it was something I had done, but rest assured this is a collective and representational list.] It is depressing to see them act this way.

3. Apparently this only applies to literature fields, according to people in other fields, but in literature, people do not present their papers so much as read them aloud. It’s boring most of the time. Things might be really different if people actually presented the papers, gave a short lecture, brought up ideas and questions, maybe even made things interactive. In short, thought of the presentation less as a line on the CV or a step toward publication (as tempting and, honestly, very practical that is) and more as an opportunity to teach one’s colleagues about something and receive feedback on ideas. Is this how you teach your class — show up and read from a paper you wrote? Some of you, sure, but for most of you, I doubt it.

4. Speaking of, it would also be lovely if people went to conferences in order to learn from each other and contribute feedback. I’m not saying that never happens, but what usually happens is that people only attend sessions that directly relate to their own research and then ask the presenter questions not about the presenter’s research so much as how the presenter’s research applies to the questioner’s research. It’s delightful when someone asks a genuine question that either furthers a conversation or shows honest curiosity that goes beyond “what’s in this for me?”. But this is exceedingly rare, and instead, Q&A sessions are generally painful exercises in pretension, name-dropping, and oneupmanship. I just think it’s strange that a roomful of alleged teachers and scholars –people who profess to love learning — would behave in this way, instead of grasping onto a potential learning opportunity.

This does not cover all the reasons why academic conferences are so painful, but these are a few of the reasons why, after years of enduring them, I had to remove myself from the last conference I went to. I have had a number of very good experiences at conferences; I have learned things myself, and I have enjoyed sharing my work with others. I have a particularly fond memory of a Victorian conference I went to that had a magic lantern show as the evening presentation, especially since we watched an extremely abridged version of “A Christmas Carol” followed by a morality musical sing-a-long. That was pretty great. But the overall feeling I have is tremendous relief that I am no longer required to go to these things. I get just as much satisfaction from attending lectures at the university where I work, and if I don’t like it or think the Q&A is ridiculous, I can walk back to my house instead of returning to my expensive hotel to turn in before my 3-leg plane ride home from a crappy location.

Benefits of Not Being an Academic #1: I don’t have to read everything

When I was working on my PhD, the expectation was that I would end up in academia, presumably in a college teaching position. Instead, about six months ago (a year and a half after finishing my degree), I landed a position overseeing a university writing center, which means that although I still work in higher education and still teach one class a year (training writing tutors), I am no longer an “academic,” exactly.

I liked teaching college (sometimes I loved it, and sometimes I loathed it, depending on the class and the students, so I will average it out and say I liked it), and part of me liked being a scholar, and there are certainly benefits to being a college professor. But I love my current job, and there are certain major benefits to not being an academic. Hence, my little series on “Benefits of Not Being an Academic.”

Part 1, as I’m sure you have so adroitly noticed in my title, is “I don’t have to read everything.” Now, I’ve always been a pretty insatiable reader, like most people who would be crazy enough to enter an English literature PhD program in this day and age. And like any insatiable reader, along with my voraciousness comes a distinct feeling of awe, even some anxiety, over the sheer amount of reading material in the world. Not only am I never satisfied, but also I can never possibly read all that’s out there, or even all of the good stuff.

Most people who love to read feel this way, at least a little. But when you’re an academic, it both intensifies and narrows. What I mean is this: I would have the same sense of being overwhelmed by the possibility of all I could read, but at the same time, I would feel more than a desire—an imperative—to at least read everything in my particular field. You may think this would not be so bad, especially if one studies a past time period (that is, if we don’t, you know, get too mired in the idea of what history is, really). It would seem, since the time is past, the reading material is finite. Charles Dickens is dead and therefore no longer producing any more books (that is, if we don’t, you know, get too mired in the idea of what an author is, really, and presume that only Dickens wrote novels by Dickens, and that there is such a thing as an author named Dickens, and so on).

Academics love to climb ivory towers like this one and contemplate the death of the author. It’s a well-known fact that the tower of Pisa leans because all the Jane Austen scholars congregated on one side and the Anne Bronte scholars on the other. Poor Anne. She doesn’t get the love she deserves.

However, the problem for the academic is twofold: first, the reading material is still not really finite, not only because literary critics are forever writing about those past works of literature (really, no matter how hard everyone tries, literary critics just will not stop writing literary criticism), but also because more and more obscure works or forgotten-but-popular-at-the-time works are constantly being “discovered,” and second, it is your job to read everything, which means you have to read it all, even if you’re not interested, or it’s only tangentially related to what you study—and if it is very closely related, you must read it even if you don’t like it or think it’s well-written.

It’s that last one that’s hard for a reader who reads for pleasure, because why on earth would you read something you don’t like or think is well-written? But I digress. The point is… I don’t have to do this anymore!

What does this mean for me? Let’s return to the example of Charles Dickens. Now, I love my pal Chuck. He’s one of my favorite writers of all time, and several of his novels are among my favorite novels of all time. But the man wrote 15 novels, most of which are quite long, and that doesn’t even include A Christmas Carol, which I count as a novella along with his other Christmas books, or his very famous collection of short stories Sketches by Boz. And of course, he also wrote a large number of short stories, journalistic essays, travel memoirs, collaborative works, and at least one play. In short, reading all of Dickens is something of a goal in itself, and if you are a Victorianist, reading all of Dickens is only part of the overall goal, which is to read, you know, all of Victorian literature.

When I still considered myself a scholar, it was indeed my personal goal to read all of Dickens, or at least all of the novels. And I think I did pretty well. Out of his 15 novels, I have finished reading the following 8 (in chronological order of when they were published):

  • Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation [aka Dombey and Son]
  • The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (which he never meant to publish on any account) [aka David Copperfield]
  • Bleak House
  • Hard Times: For These Times
  • A Tale of Two Cities
  • Great Expectations
  • Our Mutual Friend
  • The Mystery of Edwin Drood

(A quick side note: I noticed when making this list that I am much better read in the second half of his work. I have read 8 out of the last 9 novels he wrote.)


Vintage collection of the complete works of Dickens, purchased by my wonderful husband as a surprise for me. Can I, will I, read it all?

And I have to say, I was doing really well: I absolutely, unabashedly loved all of these novels except one (A Tale of Two Cities, if you must know)—and even that one certainly had its merits.

Then I hit The Old Curiosity Shop.

All I can say for myself is, I got through 234 of its 554 pages. I read the part about the waxworks, which is important. But one day I realized I was purposely avoiding reading it. I just did not care. And wondering about Little Nell’s fate was certainly not a motivation for reading further, since pretty much everybody knows what happens to her. The whole thing felt… flat. Frankly: uninspired, and a little unfocused. Certainly not up to the genius of the author of Bleak House.

And then I realized… I don’t have to read it. It was like blasphemy at first, and then it became a guilty secret, and then it became a huge relief. Because this means that not only do I not have to read The Old Curiosity Shop, but I also don’t have to read Barnaby Rudge or Martin Chuzzlewit, both of which have such unappealing titles that I’ve always shuddered a little when thinking about them. I mean, really – Chuzzlewit? Who wants to read a book with a name like that in the title?

The other weird feeling related to this is… satiation. I have come to think that reading all of Dickens might be a nigh-impossible task in itself, at least, if you want to read anything else, or unless you really don’t mind making this goal truly last your whole life.* But I do feel like feeling satisfied with the amount of Dickens I have read is within my grasp. I still want to read Oliver Twist, because it’s just embarrassing that I haven’t, and ideally I would like to read Little Dorrit, because it’s one of his late works, coming right after Bleak House and Hard Times, both of which are brilliant. But even if I don’t read Dorrit, I feel (it’s a little hard to say this) pretty proud of and satisfied with the amount I have read.

[*Note: The idea of Death-by-Dickens is somewhat appealing, though, and I am certainly not alone. For one, Victorian author and friend of Dickens Elizabeth Gaskell includes an episode in Cranford in which one character claims that reading Dickens is what killed another character. In a more recent example, on the TV show “Lost,” my favorite character, Desmond Hume, carried around a copy of Our Mutual Friend with him because he wanted it to be the last book he read before he died.

Our mutual friend

Desmond’s copy of Our Mutual Friend is not only a little worse for wear for a book he hasn’t read, but also the cover looks a little pulpy, don’t you think?

I love the sentiment, and it was one of the reasons Desmond quickly became a favorite character, but this idea has always puzzled me greatly. Why did he save Our Mutual Friend? Is it because it is Dickens’s last completed novel (he died in the middle of writing the next one, Edwin Drood)? How could Desmond have not been a Victorian scholar but still claim to have read all of Dickens except for Our Mutual Friend? Did he ever read anything else? More importantly, how can you predict what the last book you will ever read could possibly be? What if you die suddenly? And even if you die slowly, you know, that book is, like, 900 pages long or something—it’s not something you can just dash off in an afternoon on your deathbed. But maybe, just maybe, finishing the book is not the point; perhaps the real point is that the last words you read are incredibly brilliant and beautiful. And that’s greatly appealing as well.]

Here is a partial list of novels I am glad I do not have to read, now that I am no longer officially a literary scholar:

  • Felix Holt, Radical by George Eliot (thank GOD—there is something SO unappealing about the title and plot synopsis of this novel; despite the fact that I deeply love Eliot’s novels, the truth is, she really can be insufferable at times)
  • Anything by Trollope (some people swear by him, but I’ve read two of his novels and remain unimpressed. I will not really be satisfied, though, unless I read The Way We Live Now. I feel like, if I hate that, I just hate this author, right?) Guess what? I read The Way We Live Now! And I liked it! So I might try another!
  • The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins (oh, Wilkie, otherwise-wonderful Wilkie: what were you thinking by opening your novel with one character telling another character the entire backstory of a third character, in the form of a conversation over tea? Maybe it gets better? But I don’t know, because I put this one down after the second chapter. It was an excruciating decision, since Wilkie wrote at least three of the very best Victorian novels—and among the best British novels of all time.)
  • Trilby by George Du Maurier. (The author was the grandfather of Daphne Du Maurier. The only fin de siècle novel that sold more copies at the time was Dracula. The novel is set in bohemian Paris and involves one character forcing another to do his bidding through the use of hypnotic trances. How is it possible that I could not get through this novel? And yet, I could not.)

Here is a very partial list of 19th and early 20th novels I still want to read, despite no longer being a scholar:

  • New Grub Street by George Gissing (at the top of my list; I loved The Odd Women) ETA: I read this! It was great!
  • Far From the Madding Crowd and Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (for some reason, despite how good Tess of the D’Urbervilles is, I always seem to forget to read more Thomas Hardy)
  • Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (the real question is: why haven’t I already read this?) ETA: I read this one, too! Go, me!
  • Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust (Alison Bechdel says that it’s commonly known that people reach middle age when they realize they will never read Remembrance of Things Past. Thus, I vow to read this… or never, ever take it off my “to read” list.

And finally, just to be fair, here’s a very, very partial list of books I thank academic for bringing to my attention, because I don’t think they would have been on my radar otherwise:

  • Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
  • The Moonstone and Armadale by Wilkie Collins
  • Villette by Charlotte Bronte
  • The Odd Women by George Gissing
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
  • The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

(Dear Reader, if you read this entire, extremely long blog post, please leave a little comment, even if it’s just, “I read this.” It’s much appreciated!)