Out with the old

I finally deleted my old blogger site. All of my new (and archived) posts will be written and published here. Funny, when I started writing, I lived for the number of visitors listed daily on my stats page. Now I can’t even find it on WordPress’s site (and I’m not looking for it too carefully). A sign of liberation? Or fatigue from playing the game too long? I’m not sure.

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Writing through Grief

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On Sunday, which happened to be Mother’s Day, I woke up to the sounds of my baby girl giggling in her pack-n-play. My mom and mother-in-law had spent the night, and we made breakfast while waiting for Husband and my father-in-law to come back from Austin where they had seen a musical. Mom and I had gone to a wedding the previous night, and my head still felt groggy from staying up past my bedtime. When Husband and his dad arrived, we ate and exchanged gifts, and then played with Lydia until they needed to go home. It was shaping up to be a lovely day.

Around 5 pm, Husband left the room to place a phone call. When he didn’t come back, I left Lydia in her swing to look for him. He was crumpled in a chair, wearing a face that can only mean one thing. I thought of all the elderly people in our lives, until he shook his head and said one word: “Mike.”

Our dear friend, Michael DuBose, was found in his truck on May 11. He was a month shy of his 31st birthday. We later found out he had suffered an aortic aneurism, but had gone quickly and without pain. Mike, as we affectionately called him (he always introduced himself by his full name), was Husband’s best friend. We were all three in band together—Mike was to be my section leader, before I became sick and couldn’t try out that year—and it is in no small way due to his friendship that Husband and I met and fell in love.

Mike was the only person among our circle of friends who shared my passion for literature. I could talk about Hemingway with him without feeling guilty for loving a writer whose work is too often simplistically dismissed among my colleagues as anti-feminist. He received his PhD from PennState just last Spring, and held a lectureship at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. He was looking forward to interviews at a number of campuses, and while I started to sink into an alt-ac alternate reality, his academic star was slowly rising.

It’s really quite difficult to put into words how much a person means to you, especially when they are no longer here to tell them. After the initial shock, Husband and I sunk into a seemingly endless lethargy. The funeral has yet to be scheduled due to difficulties with bringing him home to Texas, so we are stuck in a state of limbo. In an effort to stay distracted, I have thrown myself into my writing, work, and crafts, but haven’t yet been able to bring myself to open my dissertation draft. I should be able to draw from my research on sentimentalism and sympathy for comfort, but what is more silent than death? I try to stay hidden, fearing that at any moment a word or phrase will stick out and stab me in the stomach again.

Mike enjoyed sending letters (old-fashioned letters, with good paper, ink, and sealed with wax), and I never knew him to be speechless or unable to express himself. So I will do my best to articulate why I feel this way: Mike was my friend. And I miss him.

Flash Fiction Friday

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One of my current works-in-progress is a linked short story collection set in a fictional Texas town called Rosewood. For your Friday reading enjoyment, here’s a little vignette from this collection.

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“Dry County”

            Rosewood was hardly a blip on the map. No phone reception, no landmarks, and her car low on gas. A classic trademark of small towns like this—you didn’t belong if you got lost. She felt betrayed. Give me some credit, she thought. I was a kid, barely old enough to drive. Wind kicked up a sandy mist that obstructed the road. Her parents watered the grass every summer, but it died anyway. It was probably dead now. No matter—she was coming home with time to spare. Would they understand? Did they know how she felt when she snuck out with Rob to have a smoke, how she asked him questions about his after-college plans, how his answers didn’t leave any room for her? She was as old as they were when they moved here, and she was coming back, alone. It wasn’t working—nothing ever did, but now she had the vocabulary to say why. It’s not you, it’s me. Or, a clean, swift break: I don’t love you anymore. At one time, these words would have been saved for Rosewood, but not today. The slow afternoon stretched on and her car sputtered forward. She turned the wheel and followed the bend in the road.

***

Want more? Check out my story, “How to Feed a Penguin,” now available as a podcast from Bound Off literary magazine.

Happy New Year! and 2014 Goals

2014 seems like a good time for my first post on WordPress. I’ll be phasing out my blogger site over the next few weeks (public service announcement! update your bookmarks!) as I revamp my web presence. As you can see from my blog’s archive, I rarely posted to my blog in 2013. It was a hectic year—Husband and I bought our first house in May, and practically the weekend we closed we found out we were expecting our first. I’m due in a few weeks, and my to-do list has a lot of writing and school related tasks left on it.

One thing that’s not on my to-do list? Finding a job! Yes, I will have employment after I finish my degree (hopefully sometime this summer). I accidentally networked my way into a position as the operations manager/content provider/editor for a start-up called STEAMTrax. Turns out all those hours answering emails for the Graduate Student Association weren’t for nothing. This past semester, I was a TA for a freshman writing seminar on educational technology, and as a side project, the instructor developed a company that provides 3-D printing curriculums to K-12 schools. We’ve lined up investors and customers, and after I take off a month or two for maternity leave, I’ll join the company part-time until I defend, at which point I’ll work full-time. I’m as excited as I am nervous about this opportunity. It’s timing couldn’t be more perfect. I’ll be able to work from home most of the time and it will fill the gap between grad school and whatever else comes my way.

I never would have thought I would be working an alt-ac job when I started graduate school, but the scales fell from my eyes as I watched my colleagues go on the job market again and again over the past five years. Even as recently as this August, I compiled a list of academic jobs I would consider if I were on the market. It was short and highly competitive, to say the least. There just aren’t enough good academic jobs to go around. So I’m trying a different route, at least for now.

That’s where I stand at the beginning of 2014. And unlike past years, where I had vague expectations for what I could accomplish, I have definite ideas on where I want to end the year. Without further procrastination, here are my goals:

1. Finish editing my novel and begin querying agents. Though many of my blogger friends have self-published to great success (and despite my forays into entrepreneurship), I’m a traditionalist at heart. My novel-in-progress is 3 years in the making, and is very close to completion. I want to finish edits and begin querying by March 1.

2. Continue to submit my work. I made a goal in 2012 to submit to five markets every month, and found that it greatly increased my productivity. I continued to submit heavily in 2013, but without a goal, my output slowed. I plan to return to my 2012 goal to submit to 5 markets/month. I’ve already sent out material to three and it’s only the second day of the year, so this should be an easy goal to keep.

3. Write a story each month. This is my stretch goal. I have several half-finished stories, so presumably I can work on polishing these. Once the baby arrives, however, this may have to go on the back burner. Still, ever tried …

4. Finish revising academic article, and submit one more. I’d like to submit my Lady Byron paper for a CFP due in a few weeks, and I have a revise-and-resubmit lingering on my to-do list. This shouldn’t be a stretch goal, but the timing of completion may need to be adjusted to take into consideration my biggest goal of the year:

5. Finish writing and revising my dissertation, and defend. I have four chapter drafts completed, and need to write the introduction. If I’m to defend over the summer, I need to improve the speed with which I turn over material to my advisors. This will be the biggest goal to be sure, but also the one for which I have the strongest motivation.

And finally—

6. Train for half-marathon for the fall/winter. Some people can exercise at their normal level when they are pregnant. I couldn’t. My energy levels dropped considerably from practically the first week, and I haven’t raced since March. I won’t be able to start training right away, but I would like to slowly build my base over the summer and fall. If I can’t run a half in 2014, I plan to sign up for several 5Ks to improve my speed. I’m excited to have a baby, but I’m almost as excited to be able to bring the jogging stroller to the track.

Those are my goals—I look forward to sharing my progress over the next year. Keep writing, my friends.

Getting Unstuck

Much of my time lately has been spent figuring out ways to the writer’s block that has been keeping me from working on my dissertation. I’ve tried free writing, writing in different genres, reading, free writing again, editing, reading … but inevitably I come back to where I started. The ideas are coming much slower now that I’m trying to think of how the chapters will work together to form one argument. It’s like my brain is moving in smaller and smaller circles that tighten around each other and choke off forward progress.

I had a brilliant week mid-September when I felt like I couldn’t write enough, but now my well is dry and I’m struggling to get started again. Thankfully, this particular dry spell has happened at the same time that I’m teaching Jane Austen’s Emma. I’m not writing on this particular book per se, but my fourth chapter, “Revising Sympathetic Silence: Jane Austen and the Domestic Novel,” tackles themes that occur across Austen’s oeuvre. I thought I would test out some of the ideas from my chapter on my students to see 1) if I could articulate them out loud, and 2) if they have any legs. 

I chose a section from the first volume. Emma has just left an evening gathering and is accidentally placed in a carriage with Mr. Elton without a chaperon. Mr. Elton, who has been drinking far too much, takes the opportunity to begin professing his undying love for her. Emma, thinking that his affection for her stems from his love of her friend, Harriet Smith, rejects him, and, mortified, stops speaking:

“It would be impossible to say what Emma felt on hearing this—which of all her unpleasant sensations was uppermost. She was too completely overpowered to be immediately able to reply: and two moments of silence being ample encouragement for Mr. Elton’s sanguine state of mind, he tried to take her hand again, and joyously exclaimed—

‘Charming Miss Woodhouse! allow me to interpret this interesting silence. It confesses that you have long understood me.’

‘No, sir,’ cried Emma, ‘it confesses no such thing. So far from having long understood you, I have been in a most complete error with respect to your views, till this moment.'”

(Broadview edition, ed. Kristin Flieger Samuelian, p. 150).

We began working through this section by discussing the conditions in which this conversation occurs: how Mr. Elton is not bound to uphold social rules of propriety because no one is present who can contradict him; how Emma’s protests go unheard because her voice is worth less than his; and what it means to truly “understand” someone. It’s a fairly straightforward moment, full of awkwardness and the types of social anxiety that make Austen’s novels so witty and enjoyable, but one that nevertheless touches on the themes and concerns of my dissertation.

I felt the conversation went fairly well until I tried to articulate more specifically why this scene is symptomatic of contemporary debates on female conduct and the particular ways Emma tries to resist Mr. Elton’s advances given the ineffectiveness of the conversational tools available to her. I noticed that my students’ eyes began to glaze at that point, and I knew I would lose them if we continued along that path. On further reflection, I think that if I provided the students with excerpts from conduct literature on female speech that shows how young women were expected to be not only courteous and delightful in conversation, but also bow to the expectations of fathers and husbands, they would have been better equipped to discuss why Mr. Elton takes it upon himself to “interpret this interesting silence” for Emma. Furthermore, I would have liked to utilize J. L. Austin’s speech act theory to investigate why the power of refusal is denied Emma (i.e., she does not have a witness that can validate or substantiate her rejection, and is instead placed at the whimsy of Mr. Elton).

Though the pedagogical utility of my theories are still shaky and underdeveloped, the experiment helps me to better see what scaffolding I need in place for my ideas to work. Plus, we’ve got two more days of Emma, so I may try another tactic in the next few days that may be more effective.

PS

As I mentioned in my last post, I am moving my Blog to its own website, hopefully this week. I’m not sure how this will turn out, but I’ll let you know when to start updating your bookmarks/links. Stay tuned!

The New Academic Job Market


Yesterday, our department held its annual meeting for the graduate students who are going on the job market. I’ve attended the meeting as an onlooker for the past few years to get a sense of what was in store, but this is the first year I’ve attended as one of the job seekers. I have nearly a complete draft of my dissertation, with revisions, rewritings, and the distillation of my argument into an introduction as my remaining writing tasks, so it’s time to leave the nest.

For the past three years, the agenda has looked much the same: this is what a dossier looks like, here are some sources on how to draft a cover letter, don’t forget about the importance of your teaching statement, and whatever you do, DON’T PANIC. This last admonition typically has the opposite effect on me, which is probably the reason why I scramble to sign up for every professionalization opportunity the university offers even as I internalize the futility of it all. This year, I had the same stomach-dropping sensation as the agenda was passed around, but even as I tried not to vomit, a curious realization hit me. All of the people sitting at the table yesterday are going on the job market for the first time. The people who attended past meetings have defended and gotten jobs. Academic jobs. Good academic jobs.

As I worked to square this observation with stories told by my twitter feed—filled with panicked, cranky, dismissive, and pessimistic observations about the current situation in academia—I opened my ears to actually listen to what our job coordinator had to say. And to my delight, the agenda took a slightly different tenor than last year. The traditional ways of finding and applying for jobs are changing. The MLA JIL used to be the only source for academic employment opportunities. Now there are a plethora of sites, including Jobs in Higher Education, Academic Careers, and Women in Higher Education, not to mention various list-servs and the Chronicle of Higher Ed, that list jobs in a variety of fields. I don’t have to be limited to the 20 or so (extremely competitive) positions in Romanticism that will open this year because there are a number of opportunities I could pursue.

In addition, our meeting stressed the importance of being savvy while job searching. This year, every grad student on the job market will create a personal website since a professional online presence is almost a prerequisite for the top jobs. I’m happy I bit the bullet and created this blog three years ago, but this semester I’ll migrate it to its own domain, and will update it with writing samples and sample syllabi. I’ll also implement a blogging schedule soon, something I’ve resisted in the past that now seems practically mandatory—the only thing worse than a poorly designed website is a dormant one.

It’s a semester of change, but I’m excited about the challenges ahead. And for once, I’m not panicking.

Higher Ed Job Crisis: Just How Bad Is It?

In a recent blog post for Inside Higher Ed, Lee Skallerup Bessette chronicles her bleak job search over the past few years. She writes:

I’m still receiving rejection letters in the mail (and emails) … The letter I received today (Monday) outlined that they had received over 500 applicants and conducted dozens of interviews.*

Dr. Skallerup notes the scanty job market in her field that grows increasingly smaller every year. Everyone (administrators, job seekers, search committees) agrees that we’re in a tough spot. But recent attempts in Higher Ed blogs and commentaries to dismiss the problem by comparing the job search to a lottery or a game (as their recent “Play the Role of the Search Committee” feature illustrates) belittle job seekers, of which there are too many qualified individuals to collectively patronize them as overly ambitious or ill-suited to academia.

But why should we care? Certainly there are other, more pressing, issues such as the growing amount of student debt that need to be addressed. Yes—but the conversation about academia and money shouldn’t be an either/or questions. We need teachers to train students, to give them the best quality education the university can offer them; but we can’t do this effectively if our instructors are spending 3 to 5 years on the job market hoping that eventually they will “beat the odds.”

What type of work are we looking for when we seek these positions—that is to say, professorships in the humanities? One simple definition could be an opportunity to teach college students at a competitive salary and to conduct our research in a supportive environment. By “supportive,” I mean institutional access to libraries and other facilities, and a university that provides basic care such as health insurance and retirement plans for its employees (for that’s what faculty are, even if they refuse to accept this label).

Whether this happens on the tenure track or no, there are things we need to set in place to make sure we are providing the best support for teachers. Livable wages and some measure of job security are a good place to start.

We need to work with our administrations to put these changes in place. We need to hold our administrations accountable when they change minimum degree requirements, or raise tuition so that students are forced to turn to MOOCs or community colleges in order to afford their degree. These proposals are not my own, and there are already people with bigger microphones than mine working on these issues.

Still, it troubles me that there is an entire generation of academics who are growing so dissatisfied with the system that they are abandoning it to the lowest bidder. We hear shouts of rage from every corner—so why aren’t we making meaningful proposals? Ones from which all constituents of the university—students, faculty, and administrators—can benefit?

Book Tourism—Researching my WIP

Over the past few weeks, I have started revising and rewriting my work-in-progress, a love story/conspiracy plot set during the 1928 Democratic National Convention, here in Houston. Much of the work involves restructuring my plot and getting rid of material that served as back story, but that doesn’t need to take up real estate in the actual novel.

Last week, I headed to the microfilm room in the basement of Fondren to read past issues of the Houston Post and Houston Chronicle. Working on a historical novel presents its own challenges, but I love that when I get stuck, I can go to the records for that day to see what actually happened. If it rained on Monday, I can turn a leaky roof into a plot point. Extra tickets to the rodeo available? Send a character to retrieve them.

But what I really love about researching this novel are the random tidbits scattered throughout the archives. Newspapers in the 20s resembled sincere tabloids, lively and bizarre. On one day, the reporters couldn’t get a statement from a son of a prominent official, so they reprinted his refusal, along with the reporter’s commentary: “Mr. Blair is 21, and when a man is 21 he has a right to express his opinions as a man among men.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

Along with dozens of these little one-liners, I found a picture of a house that represented the “typical” “Colonial homes of moderate cost which have been constructed in River Oaks within recent months.” For those of you who don’t live in Houston, River Oaks is widely regarded as one of the most opulent, extravagant, and, yes, expensive areas to live in the city. It’s also where my beat-up apartment is located, so I had to go see this house.

We plugged the address into our phones, and took a long walk last night. Most of the houses in that neighborhood are original, though some have been knocked down and replaced with even bigger mansions. But there it was—the house in the newspaper, almost 100 years old and still retaining to a large degree its original character. The trees in the front yard were massive; the house next door had an oak whose gnarled branches were supported by iron posts.

So much of the Houston of my novel has been torn down, replaced by highways or skyscrapers. It was amazing to see a part of it still thriving after all these years. We stood as long as we could, about twenty seconds, before the owners noticed us pointing and measuring with our hands and opened the blinds to look. We turned our tracks and headed home, my mind spinning with images of Gatsby-style cars and suits and cigarettes.

Live Tweeting—What is it? Why do it?

I’ve been recruited to live-tweet during the Millennial Medicine Symposium next Friday (held at Rice University at the BRC). Live-tweeting is more focused than regular tweeting in that it involves a group of people having a conversation around a certain topic searchable with hashtags. Over the past two or three years, academics increasingly have used live-tweeting during conferences, speaking events, and other site-specific gatherings to share knowledge and participate in debates. With university budgets cut year after year, we may not be able to attend as many conferences due to smaller travel budgets; live-tweeting helps engage scholars across the online community and to bring the ideas discussed at the conference to a larger audience.

Live-tweeting is also a great way to meet people, especially at larger conferences. I live-tweeted during MLA-Seattle and AWP-Boston and shared ideas with people sitting in the same panel (via Twitter). There were fewer people tweeting during the BWC-Albuquerque two weekends ago, but I similarly found people who share similar research interests.

If you’ve never live-tweeted, here’s a round-up of links to help you get started. And feel free to join me (@AnnaSaikin) on Friday as we discuss what the future of medicine should be, and how we should get there—#MMed13

Links:
Live-Tweeting Best Practices — From Twitter Developers; gives basic overview and tips

Live-Tweeting: An Essential Top 10 Guide of Tips and How-tos —Covers basic tips and suggestions on how to make a successful live-tweeting session

12-step Guide on How to Live-Tweet an Event — Much like tips and how-tos, but covers before and after the event

5 Tips to Help You Live Tweet a Speech — Symposiums are different than conferences in that there are usually only one or two speakers during each block of time. How to live-tweet when you’re listening to a more lengthy presentation

List of 10 Most Socially Awkward Examples of Live-Tweeting — Not all events were meant to be live-tweeted. Here are some examples of times when you should put the phone down.

If you have other suggestions, feel free to list them in the comments. See you there!

Blogging through the Dissertation

Last month, the Chronicle of Higher Ed posted an essay on how blogging helped one grad student in the humanities finish his dissertation. The comment section is filled with both supportive and condescending remarks—some in the digital humanities praise bloggers for helping to share the work of academia outside the Ivory Tower, while others were more inclined to say “the lady doth protest too much.”

Although the writer, Maxime Larivé, claims that the blog should be related to the student’s research, to me his argument seems valid no matter what the subject of the blog. (No surprise there—the topics on this blog sway wildly from academia to creative writing to everything under the sun.) I have found that my biggest problem while writing the dissertation has not been the research or the arguments—though these have been plenty challenging. Rather, its keeping the momentum of writing moving forward, which, coincidentally, is also the advice my advisor gives me when we run into each other in the hallways. “Are you writing? Keep writing!”

The point of writing a dissertation—the first draft, at least—is to demonstrate that you have the chops to write a monograph-length work of original scholarship. But those 200-odd pages do not come naturally. Blogging, and the sense of community that comes with it, keeps you honest. When I’m writing here, I’m usually also writing there. If the well dries up, it’s that much more difficult to sit down in the chair again.

For the record, I’m not the only one in my department blogging. When I first started blogging, a senior grad student (now an assistant prof at an East Coast university) kept a personal blog where she wrote about her personal life with a bit of research thrown in. Tim Morton, a faculty member at Rice, is a prolific blogger—he frequently liveblogs guest lecturers, and posts several times a day.

Though blogging might not be for everyone, I do think that it as some value, even if you can’t turn it in to your committee. If it helps write the dissertation itself, I say, go for it.