Other people’s writing days vs mine

In the “reading about writing rather than actually writing” department, the Guardian has a series called “My Writing Day” where they interview English writers about their routines. I read this column every time it comes out, for two reasons: one is simply voyeurism and the other is that they feature writers I’ve not heard of, and that’s always nice.

Nonetheless, other people’s writing days look something like an ode to virtue and cosmopolitanism:

Rise at dawn

Exercise like the awesome, well-adjusted person they are

Eat a breakfast of diet air and coffee

Write brilliantly for many hours, stopping only for 4 1/2 unsalted raw almonds for elevensies

Go for a ramble across the moors in the afternoon

Settle in their book-lined study to revise

Dinner with friends prepared by dutiful spouse or at a posh restaurant

My writing day many days before a deadline

Wake up whenever a dog decides I’ve slept enough by barking or shoving a slobbery wet toy onto my head.

Tell myself I am not going to faff not the Internet, wind up trying to read the entire Internet. Come to my senses after I find myself on a website that says “Celebrities you didn’t know have embarrassing birthmarks!”

Leap upon the coffee like a bear going after a salmon

Eat PopTarts

Tell myself I might exercise but put that off, saying that if I budget enough time for a walk to the train station that can count as some exercise

Write, finding endless problems with things I’ve written before that I really have to fix before going forward. I’ve never been able to just forge ahead. What’s there has to be right. It sucks, but it’s the only way it works for me.

Finally get into a groove, only to see the clock and find that I’m a good 20 minutes past where I should have hopped into the shower if I wanted to walk to the train station, thus have to decide whether I go to work unshowered or whether I groom and have spouse drop me at the train station.

Inevitably get dropped off at train station with my head in the writing yet, perhaps showered, perhaps not.

Go to class, teach, get distracted from writing by all the ideas we worked on in class. Find some food on campus.

Tell myself I should shut my office door in the afternoon and work, but then my mind lands on how much it saddens me to see all my colleagues’ doors shut on the third floor of RGL, of how, when I was a student, I loved to walk by the open office doors of the professors in the Classics department at the University of Iowa, when it was housed in the warm, wood-paneled halls of Schaeffer Hall. (It is now in the Jefferson Building, in which I took my American Studies classes.) I didn’t even stop in talk with any of them, except for kindly Professor Jackson; it was just nice that they were present. Departments should have a there there; so much of our department is hidden in suites. It is one of the contradictions of academic life that planning faculty will write about the need for incidental contact in cities but do just about everything possible to avoid it themselves.

So I try to work with the door open, and that suggests hospitality and openness, and that means interruption, which was the point of leaving it open in the first place, and it’s nice to visit with people even if it’s not productive in a way that my provost would count. I am fortunate in that my excellent neighbor, LaVonna Lewis, also tends to be there and leave her door open.

Some days I get a treat, and I get to see David Sloane.

I usually revise or read in my office; I’ve always needed privacy to compose, and I do get quite a bit done there in between interruptions. Today I am planning to finish a review for JPER, working with hard copy, pen, and paper.

About 4 o’clock I need coffee coffee again. If USC really loved me, it would send coffee to my office via a trolley like they have on the Hogwards Express, but no. More proof that institutions don’t love you.

Sometimes at 6 I ride the train home; most days, Andy and I are too anxious to see each other to wait for the train to take me, and so he drives to campus. Being married for 25 years doesn’t seem to matter; in this, we’re still like newlyweds. By the time I’m home, there’s something in the garden or the house that wants doing while Andy, bless him, cooks or we wait for the delivery to come.

And at night I read or listen to records or watch a movie with him, play with dogs, catch up on rescue stuff.

My writing day just a days before a deadline

Furious binge writing from my laptop in my bed, refusing to wear anything besides pajamas, getting wired on coffee, and passive aggressively asking for more time to revise because I am a bad, bad person.

Speed versus developing young faculty

Recently I got into a disagreement with a journal editor over the way a manuscript of my student’s was adjudicated. The reviews were negative, which is what it is, but they were also…not particularly insightful or useful reviews. I hate to drag on reviewers (jk I actually love it), voluntary service and all that, but as every good nonprofit director knows, not all volunteer contributions are worth having. And with these reviews, the sum was less than its parts, and the parts were pretty lame, too. Now, again…this happens with reviews: we’ve all written lame reviews, and it’s a statistical probability that at some point in your career, three useless advice trains will arrive at the station at once.

Honestly, there have been times when I have gotten all the referee’s reports in, with mine and everybody else’s, on somebody’s manuscript, and my response is: “well, we sure sucked. Sorry, anonymous author person.”

That’s when I hope the editor has stepped up and made us sound smarter than we did, so that the author doesn’t walk away with steaming pile of poo for feedback.

But this editor just sent a “Hi, the reviewers want it rejected and so I am rejecting it and isn’t it swell of us to get this back to you so fast? Please don’t be discouraged from submitting again!” letter.

Now, does anybody owe you feedback? No. But duties aren’t the only reason to sack up and provide a little feedback. If we want a field of excellent scholars and excellent scholarship, we better be giving good-quality feedback, and not just for the “I, me, and mine” of student development. It takes a village to make a field.

So, I objected; I know and respect this editor and I said “Come on…is this what you are sending to young scholars who submit to the journal?”

And the response from the editor was, in essence, I am too busy to waste time on papers that have a reviewer consensus that it should be rejected, you’re mean for criticizing me, now grow up and learn that peer review is “a crap shoot.”

In fairness, most people with any sense when confronted with the possibility of debating anything with me run in the opposite direction. When I come swinging out of a corner, it’s going to be rough on the person I’m poking at. So short-circuiting any debate with such a defense perhaps served survival instincts. Or maybe the editor was just having a bad day. It’s not good to go quoting out of context, so don’t judge too harshly.

But boy that “crap shoot” metaphor, from an editor, really isn’t sitting well with me.

If peer review is a crap shoot, why do journal editors exist? Some are just doing the job with no compensation, and it’s all service, and I do empathize, but some of them get paid, and decently enough. If peer reviewing is just a crap shoot…what’s the editor’s role? Are they like Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, and they get a percentage off the top simply because they preside over the space?

And if it’s a crap shoot, then why the hell are any of us doing this? All we got to do is get some low-paid administrative assistant a Magic Eight Ball with “Accept”; “Revise and Resubmit” and “Reject” on it.

Better yet, just have a randomized algorithm deliver an immediate decision as soon as the “submit” button is pushed. Hell, it’s a crap shoot.

Just think of the time we’d all save! (I’m rather tempted.)

I’m not disputing the decision: papers get rejected. I am well past the point of my career where I need anybody to tell me about JK Rowling’s rejections or the like. We all know the good stories of papers that got rejected only to win prizes.

In reality, peer review is a deliberative process with a stochastic element to it. (the crap shoot part). But it should be more than that stochastic element. There’s all sorts of ways where worthy work and piss-poor work don’t wind up with desert. We live with this because the process of deliberation serves, when it works, as process of research and faculty development, and do you have a better idea? Nope, not perfect. But it can be decent if we approach it from the perspective of development.

So there’s the general principle of: if we want the field to exemplify good work, we need to help authors develop the work. And when the reviewers piss all over themselves, it is a good idea for an editor to step to some degree.

And then there is simple self-interest. Go ahead and reject me with a paragraph. I should know what I am about by now. But young scholars should walk away, ok yeah, stinging from a rejection, but with the belief that the journal wasn’t a waste of his/her time. In this case, with this journal, this submission was a waste of the kid’s time.

Now, if you are the editor of AER, then no. You don’t have to put in the time to foster relationships or submissions. You’re sitting on top of a valuable asset, and you have market power. That means people are going to keep coming back because the lottery shot of getting in there is worth something. And chances, your reviews will be decent, if not nice.

Field journals, however, are a different smoke.

Just about all field journals are hurting for submissions. You need to wade through a lot of stuff before you get gold, and since field journal editors are already not at AER level, they are getting people’s dodgier submissions anyway. So that means they need an even bigger submission pool than the elite journals–which the field journals won’t get because they are not really elite–if the field journals hope to gather some quality hits.

Or they just accept lower quality to fill pages, which means they stay mediocre.

Field journals have to really work to court submissions, IOW.

If a field journal editor gets a set of bad reviews, and they don’t do work on the submission themselves, a young scholar walks away with nothing but a lesson in resilience. Now, if you are an editor of big-deal journal, like AER, the scholar comes back. With a field journal, the young scholar doesn’t need to: journals with IFs of around 1 to 2 are thick on the ground. Fast decisions are one way to compete, and that’s good, but fast isn’t everything.

Revisiting your young scholarship as an older scholar, learning what matters

I spent a good part of the summer reading Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. My edition came from 2000; I see there is a more recent edition out. It’s a long haul of a book, buoyed most by Brown’s marvelous prose, and I was lead there, by Brown’s spectacular recent book, Through the Eye of A Needle, which I had read last year.

This is my little reading chart.

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The book was originally published 45 years ago, and my edition includes two afterwards: New Evidence and New Directions. The first discusses the exciting new evidence about Augustine that has been found since the book was published: the Divjak letters and the Dolbeau sermons. These new items, in addition to the formal corpus of Augustinian output (enormous), had Brown rethinking his young man’s views on Augustine at multiple phases in his life. It’s important not to get too sentimental: with his suppression of the Donatists*, Augustine cemented, if not laid, the intellectual foundation of forced conversion that in the hands of less moderate men would immiserate many.

Nonetheless, the sermons illustrated just how much of a fight Augustine had on his hands in north Africa at the time; bishops then were not the just stuff of silks and fancy hats. They had hostile and vigilante landowners, corrupt administrators, and others who abused power all around them, as well as a populace that remembered, all too well, the fun of pagan rituals, circuses, and celebrations relative to the austere language of sacrifice and personal redemption the Christians were peddling. The threats that may have seemed to a young biographer as minor were not: Brown admits throughout the addenda that he was, at times, too hard on his subject, too ready to ascribe to Augustine an unbending adherence to his authority of office rather than what, in retrospect, seems to Brown as Augustine simply trying to develop and use his authority to stem the worst abuses by a landed elite, his fellow bishops, and a greedy colonial administration. Augustine, as Brown notes, lived long enough to see all his hard-won victories in Africa fall apart around him after all was written and done. It is a sad ending for the man, if not for his lingering influence on Catholic theology.

As an older scholar, Brown recognizes also his willingness as a young man to write off Augustine as an old duffer who simply tried to sink Julian of Eclanum’s more reasoned positions about sex and human nature. Instead, the letters show Augustine a decent man who, in his old age–where he was highly venerated as a scholar and bishop–takes time for the smallest acts of teaching and ministering (largely the same things in my head):

It is, above all, the Divjak letters that have made me change my mind. In them we are bought up against a very different, more attractive, because so poignantly painstaking, side of the old man. Not only do they show Augustine acting always, if with a constant sigh of resignation, as the loyal colleague of his fellow bishops, when they struggled with endless cases of violence and the abuse of power among the clergy, land owners, and Imperial administrators. His letters are marked by an inspired fussiness and by a heroic lack of measure when it came to the care of endangered souls. There is nothing ‘burnt out’ in the seventy-year-old man who would spend the time to interview a young man terrorized by slave-traders** and who would go out of his way (as part of an effort to encourage the father to accept Christian baptism) to ask to see the school exercises, the rhetorical dictiones, of a teenage boy.*** The letters make plain that the old Augustine was prepared to give his unstinting attention to any problem that might trouble the faithful, no matter how busy he was, no matter how trivial or how ill-framed the problem seemed to be, and no matter how remote from Hippo,o show eccentric its proponents were.

The beginning of a new school year always has me thinking about the question of time and painstakingness. Research and teaching are really two jobs if you do them with the passion that I do, and in a place like USC, you are always encouraged to put research first. That’s where the painstakingness is meant to apply. And then there is my animal rescue work, which takes time and emotional resources, and where life-and-death decisions have to made; painstakingness, too, is required. The mistake of a day; the wrong medical choice; a failure to notice a limp, or a certain behavior, can result in tragedy.

How do you carve out a life when you have so many demands? Parents scoff at me, naturally: you have to when children in the picture, or if you don’t, you soon regret not doing so.

But this little bit at the end of Augustine reminds me that taking time for the small things, the small nudges to goodness and betterment that the old teach the young, matters in ways we ourselves do not often see. Taking time to visit and be present, and taking time and care over a student’s work…those distinguish scholars from those who merely wish to be stars.

*My auto-correct will keep making Donatists into Denists. I feel somewhat badly for the Donatists, though they certainly seemed to have been able to dish it out, but dentists deserve everything that is coming to them. (JK)

**Ep 10

***Ep 2

St. Augustine on Writing

I’m done reading Aristotle and have moved to St. Augustine, and I am currently reading Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo. In some places, it’s so, so great. In other places, I feel like he’s digressing, badly. Even so, I’d consider myself lucky if I ever finish a book half as beautifully written. Amazing prose stylist.

I am, however, very unclear on the citation protocal he is using. I just don’t get it. I think it might be unique to Augstine scholars. I’m just not familiar with many of Augustine’s writings. Thus, I am not clear as to where this comes from. The citation is: de cat. rud. ii, 3.

No. Clue.

But this is a lovely quote anyway.

“For my own way of expressing myself almost always disappoints me. I am anxious for the best possible, as I feel it in me before I start bringing it into the open in plain words; and when I see that it is less impressive than I had felt it to be, I am saddened that my tongue cannot live up to my heart.”

Comrade. I, too, have ruined many, many good ideas by trying to write them down.

David McCullough on Reading Up

I am a great fan of escapist literature, but I also routinely get myself booed for being a snotty elitist when I tell people they really shouldn’t just read for escape. They should read to be challenged in addition.

Think of this way: you don’t run a marathon every day to train for a marathon. You do bits, big bits and small bits, and sometimes you just run around waving your hands in the airs chasing a little one in a game. The latter, taken alone, doesn’t train you for the marathon, but life would be terribly, terribly sad without it.

Or, you can’t eat chocolate all day every day. Gotta have some salad in there, too. But a life of salads, though many are delicious, is a lot less fun if there is never any chocolate.

So for those of us who write, we should be reading to understand our craft better, and we should be reading to understand how thinking occurs on the page and with the page.

This conversation with David McCullough is, like just about all conversations with him, delightful, and here he talks about “reading up, reading something that is just a little past your grasp.” You should. You’ll be surprised at how much you will grow doing that. Those stretch goals help a lot.

I was recently reminded of this with my foray in Thucydides in Greek. GOD THAT WAS HARD and it took me FOREVER. I’m translating Julius Caesar now and GOD THAT IS HARD. But I’ve learned a lot. I shall have to go back again and again. But those stretches have been so good.

Committing plagiarism is easier to do than people think

I work with plagiarism all the time as a college professor, and I send my *own* papers through Turnitin.com because I think it’s far easier to plagiarize by accident than people realize. Now, I am not a fan of Melania Trump. As I said on Fboo, I’ve always seen her as the mean girl at Durmstrang who joined the Death Eaters as soon as she possibly could, and this little teapot tempest is especially delicious granted that Mrs. Trump got her similar material from Michelle Obama and gave the speech, to yells and cheers, to a group of people who have treated Michelle Obama with so much unmitigated, unwarranted, and blind hate they should be ashamed of themselves.

The fact that all “First Lady” convention speeches are always the same “family valooos, my man is a Good Man, Daddy loves the Kiddies” blah blah means that I have to take my hat off to whoever first recognized the similarities.

Obviously, computers have done quite a bit to change plagiarism. Of course, detecting it is a million times easier. When people were just typing out of books or articles, it was harder to find. Now it’s easy to find.

But even easier to do, I think.

I still take notes by hand on notecards. My students think I am insane. Why would you do that when you can just type notes or cut and copy those notes from the original. That just strikes me as really dangerous on multiple levels. The first is that unless you really force yourself to put the concepts from the original piece in your own words, you may not really move much beyond the authors’ ideas and into your own ideas. You want to fairly represent what they author says, but for me, it’s important that I summarize the ideas in my own words so that I get a stronger grasp of how those ideas fit in with my own and others that are floating around. The second is simply making a mistake by not flagging what you have typed as a direct quote if it is a direct quote, you might forget and use it later in the writing.

Now, I think it’s possible to do notes and summarizing by typing. I just don’t do it that way, and these reasons are why.

The other reason I work by hand is to slow down and really think about the words and the concepts. I type so fast that I am not thinking much when I am typing.

I also have to watch myself. I have a good memory and I love bon mots. I’m also conceited enough to think I came up with a clever turn of phrase when actually I didn’t. I still check Turnitin even though I also try to plagiarism-proof my notes.

Slow scholarship….

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