academia: January 2006 Archives


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As Mike notes, albeit from a different perspective from mine, visit season is upon many of us in Rhetoria. The tail end of this past week saw one visit to the SU Writing Program, and we'll have 3 more over the next couple of weeks.

There are times when I simply don't write here, and times when I basically can't, and visit season is one of the latter. It's an odd process, in part because there are all sorts of confidentiality considerations. Less so for a junior search, I guess, since at some point, we all leave the nest. But still. It's a process where differences among candidates are magnified and hierarchized to a degree entirely incommensurate with reality. For better or worse, every department I've ever been in has engaged in what I can only describe as the process of measuring prospective hires against a highly idealized, and in cases fantasized, image of itself.

Believe it or not, that's not bitterness or anything. Quite the contrary. I think that this is an entirely normal reaction, and while we all might wish for a process where candidates weren't being held to standards that we ourselves might struggle to meet, the length and intensity of the hiring process makes this a tough wish to grant. And even as I recognize some of its absurdities, it's tough to imagine it working differently. I've been an applicant, a member of several search committees (and a co-chair this year), and I've helped prepare our own graduates for 5 years now, and there are elements of the process that frustrate me in each of those roles: hard decisions, lots of rejection, subterranean motivations, etc.

One of the things that no visitor to Syracuse will have to endure this year is something that I myself really dislike: the fake teaching performance. There are many places where, on a visit, you will be asked to "take over" a faculty member's class for a day, and somehow accomplish something productive (and of course, persuasive to the several lurkers who watch you). I've never liked this requirement, and I'm pleased to be able to say that we don't do it here. The artificiality of the guest appearance completely runs counter to my own pedagogical beliefs and styles, which involve at their base a distinction between "teaching to" and "teaching at." Even "teaching to" is a little top-down a formulation for my tastes, but "teaching with" isn't quite right, either. I spend a fair amount of energy at the beginning of the semester getting my classes beyond the point where I feel as though I'm speaking to a room full of strangers--asking a candidate to do so (with a job offer potentially riding on the result) is misleading at best and damaging at worst.

So yeah, that's my mini-rant for the week. Good luck to all those who'll be heading out on visits this semester, and good judgment to all those (myself included) who'll be hosting them.

That is all.

I forgot to mention that my 6-pack mustard gift box arrived today!

Which makes it doubly strange that I'm still at my office at 8:00 pm writing a second blog entry when instead I could be enjoying a sandwich. Perhaps not so strange, though, when I explain that I'm consciously getting myself back into a writing habit, and slowly (ever sooooo) trying to re-engage myself with academic work.

Anyhow, was browsing the IHE 'Round the Web, and came across an entry over at Wanna Be PhD about reading for dissertation work, wherein the writer takes issue with the advice that

When you write a dissertation, you have to prove to your readers that you have found and addressed every piece of scholarship ever written on anything possibly relevant in any way to your subject.

This isn't so much advice, I suppose, as it is hazing, and while WBP's anecdote about 2 years of reading followed by complete blockage is compelling enough, another angle on the issue suggests itself to me, particularly as I've been reading along with the Moretti fest (which you should be reading, all of it, right now, get over there).

It seems to me that, particularly in reading-intensive disciplines, we do to our graduate students the same disservice done unto most of us. Specifically, I would assume that many if not most of us loved reading--I certainly did, and part of my declaration of English as a major and my selection of Writing as a vocation related to that love. If you loved reading as a teen or college student, there's a good chance that you were fully capable of reading everything for all your classes, and then some. But that kind of binge reading, particularly at the doctoral level, just isn't possible and it's less so if you manage to complete a doctorate and profess.

So the disservice is this: because we love to read, and we do it a lot, we're slow to realize that there are different kinds of reading (this is the Moretti link for me, btw), and that different tasks require those various kinds. For example, here are four approaches that I might have taken to Latour's book:

  • read the thing cover-to-cover, as I'm doing now
  • do a power skim, reading 1st and last pages of each chapter, and topic sentences
  • read a review or two of it from relevant journals
  • wait for Clay to read it, and to review it on his site

I don't know how many of us would describe all four activities as reading, but I think I would. I might have to resort to air quotes on a couple of them, but I don't necessarily believe that close, word-by-word reading is the only kind of reading you must do when your director tells you to "read everything." In the same way that you might "read" people or "read" a conversational dynamic, for the sake of sanity, you have to "read" your field.

In a less quotey way, I'd put it like this: if you account for a 2002 essay in your project, and that essay has accounted for several articles from the mid-90s, you are accounting for the whole bunch. You have "read" them to the degree that you probably should in order to contribute to the conversation. Now, of course there is some critical faculty to be exercised as to the credibility of our 2002 author, but that's true of every single thing we read.

In a more colloquial way, I'd put it like this: just as you need to address the various "so what?" moments that inevitably arise in a project of some breadth and length, you must make sure that your project isn't vulnerable to the "what about...?" moments. This is not as much of a deal-breaker as we assume, but it is risky, especially when the "what about...?" comes from someone outside of your speciality. If I'm going to write an essay on ANT, I don't want someone to read it and ask "What about Latour?" I had better use Latour, or make sure that there isn't something there that I need to address either citationally or substantially in my argument.

But there are lots of ways to do this, and only one of them involves me rounding out the Latour section on my shelf with those books I haven't yet gotten and a stack of those essays not yet translated or bound. There are other ways, and I'd argue that they're still ways of reading, but I think each of us struggles to learn them, and we don't do such a good job of passing them on.

That is all.



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This page is a archive of entries in the academia category from January 2006.

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