Archive for the ‘Academia’ Category

I’m in the thick of it now; two weeks until exams are over, and 1L year is done (well, except for a writing competition which I am not permitting myself to worry about yet). No time to talk about the process, or much else.

Also, my birthday was yesterday! Now I’m 27 years old. I’m told that this is the age of ‘peak mental acuity’, so if I seem extra keen in this year’s posts, you’ll know why.

But anyway, I was distracting from my studies earlier by a pretty great article about Mr. Kierkegaard. Since I talked about the subject recently, I thought it appropriate to link. You can read it here.



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Dean Rader, a prof at the University of San Francisco, is creating a list of history’s top ten poets. I love games of this kind. With no attempt to defend or justify my choices, here are my top ten (unlike Rader, I’ve restricted myself to the English language):

1. W. Shakespeare

2. John Donne

3. John Milton

4. William Wordsworth

5. Samuel T. Coleridge

6. A. (L.) Tennyson

7. Emily Dickinson

8.Walt Whitman

9. W. B. Yeats

10. T.S. Eliot

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Early this week, I sent NYU law school a deposit notifying them of my intent to enroll. While this decision is not totally 100% guaranteed to be final*, it is the clearest sense of a life-direction I have had since I earned my MA one year ago. This is both a decision in favor of NYU and one against my two clear alternatives: attendance at Columbia Law, and (very likely) acceptance of an offer to participate in the PhD program with the department of English Literature at Brandeis University.

In choosing between the two law schools, which are really quite similar, I was motivated especially by NYU’s very recent record of creating successful academics, by NYU’s incredible faculty in the field of Law and Philosophy, and especially by the not ungenerous scholarship they offered me. It was not, however, easy to give up Columbia’s beautiful campus and prestigious name. I like prestige, but I’m willing to admit that egotism is probably not a good reason to attend one school over the other.

The decision to reject Brandeis (or, rather, to withdraw my name from consideration on the “priority waitlist”–wherefrom Brandeis assured me actual admission to the program was, while not guaranteed, “very likely”) was a slower choice and in some ways a more difficult one. Since I first applied to PhD programs in 2009, and accepted a Master’s program at BU as consolation prize, it was my goal to become an English professor. This was partly because reading and writing about literature is maybe the only thing I have ever really excelled at (well, that and Minesweeper), and also because, especially at BU, I discovered that I could find some real personal fulfillment in the research, writing, lectures and class discussions that make up the day-to-day life of an academic. I like working in English, and I tend to like the people who share that work. There is a really great sense of community among scholars, and I enjoyed being even just peripherally a part of that. Even nine or ten months ago, I was looking at Law School as a second-choice alternative in case my applications for PhD work were once again rejected (as, indeed, most of them were).

Although I wouldn’t have applied to law school if I didn’t think I could find some satisfaction there, I think I really began to seriously consider attending after receiving my LSAT scores, when I realized that I might be able to access some of the higher ranking Law Schools from which it is possible not only to play the game of law, but to play it at the highest level, with some of the most interesting and influential people in the world as my peers and instructors. Reading indicated to me that legal academia is not a dry field to participate in, and that the employment prospects there are better–significantly better–than the wasteland that is the employment market for careers in the humanities. Conversations with friends currently in Law School, who retain a sense of optimism about their futures and have assured me that the law need not be the soul-crushing realm it has sometimes been portrayed as, and that law school itself can be a place of intellectual growth and productive academic inquiry, were likewise influential to me.

Time will tell if I have made a mistake–if I have, it is only three years of my life that will be wasted (well, and like a billion dollars for tuition, in spite of scholarship), rather than the five to eight it takes to get a PhD. And instead of spending those three years in Waltham, isolated from the wider world, I’ll be working and living in the middle of Greenwich Village, which I am told can be an interesting place. But I do not think I have made a mistake. I think I’ll do well in law, and I think I might even enjoy a great deal of it. I’ve found pleasure in dry academic work before, and the tangible real world application of the law will be a pleasant change from literature (now I’ll get to listen to “you’re an evil lawyer” jokes instead of “what are you going to do with that degree” jokes). Not to mention, I’ll be able to keep on using the purple NYU thermos they gave me at Admitted Students day. I like that thermos.

*At this point, I am on the waitlist at the University of Chicago, and am “held” at Harvard. Admission at either–especially the latter–would force me to reconsider my current course, regardless of deposits lost to other schools.

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The Snake Fight

The last weeks have been eventful. So eventful, in fact, that I haven’t had energy to communicate with the outside world. Now, however, I’m entering a blissful week-long period without any essays to grade, at least until the class finishes their final papers two Mondays hence. Sweet freedom. Will I start updating my blog again? Will I get back to studying my French* and reading my Stanley Cavell? Will I write a few more chapters of my zombie novel? Or will I waste all my new free time watching Season 2 of Downton Abbey?

We shall seeeee…

Also, this is fantastic: FAQ: The “Snake Fight” Portion Of Your Thesis Defense.

*I’m 100 pages into Harry Potter et le Prisonnier D’Azkaban, and it’s taken me over a month to get that far. My lessons in speed reading (another half-abandoned study) do not seem to apply to reading in a foreign language. I’m following a sort of organic learning curve in my studies, just like a French child might. Next stop after les sorciers is Gustave Flaubert.

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Two critics

Readers of literature are making appearances in the news this week. Readers of the news would do well to check out the following:

First,  Sam Sacks has an outstanding essay on Sir Frank Kermode in Open Letters Monthly. Kermode is precisely the type of critic I most admire and aspire to emulate: a wide-ranging thinker who was master of many critical techniques but slave of none. I don’t think there is any critic now working, except for maybe Helen Vendler, who consistently makes such revelatory observations with so little pomp. Sacks does a great job of capturing the intelligence and wit and also the humility of Kermode’s writing.

Second, contemporaneous celebrity expatriate Susan Sontag has also been popping up around the internet, in anticipation of the release of the middle volume of her journals and notebooks*. Christine Smallwood reads this volume for Bookforum, and while her judgements are maybe a little bit… judgemental… they’re also incisive and timely and certainly valid–just as Sontag’s always were.


* It’s a crime against the internet that Sontag never had a blog. This compilation is titled “As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980.” The New York Times published several excerpts last Sunday, among them the following amusing set of lists:

“On Licorice, Bach, Jews and Penknives

Things I like: fires, Venice, tequila, sunsets, babies, silent films, heights, coarse salt, top hats, large long- haired dogs, ship models, cinnamon, goose down quilts, pocket watches, the smell of newly mown grass, linen, Bach, Louis XIII furniture, sushi, microscopes, large rooms, boots, drinking water, maple sugar candy.

Things I dislike: sleeping in an apartment alone, cold weather, couples, football games, swimming, anchovies, mustaches, cats, umbrellas, being photographed, the taste of licorice, washing my hair (or having it washed), wearing a wristwatch, giving a lecture, cigars, writing letters, taking showers, Robert Frost, German food.

Things I like: ivory, sweaters, architectural drawings, urinating, pizza (the Roman bread), staying in hotels, paper clips, the color blue, leather belts, making lists, wagon-lits, paying bills, caves, watching ice-skating, asking questions, taking taxis, Benin art, green apples, office furniture, Jews, eucalyptus trees, penknives, aphorisms, hands.

Things I dislike: television, baked beans, hirsute men, paperback books, standing, card games, dirty or disorderly apartments, flat pillows, being in the sun, Ezra Pound, freckles, violence in movies, having drops put in my eyes, meatloaf, painted nails, suicide, licking envelopes, ketchup, traversins [“bolsters”], nose drops, Coca-Cola, alcoholics, taking photographs.”


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David C. Levy of the Kaplan Test Prep agency has written an article in the Washington Post suggesting that one of the biggest problems in education (or at least in public education) is that teachers just don’t work hard enough. According to Levy, most professors are getting paid for 40-hour work weeks while they actually work only half that, and take long relaxing summer vacations to boot.

This is a popular myth, and it is both incorrect and irresponsible. Robert Farley’s response is the best I’ve read thus far.

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This post is brought to you by Old Overholt Whiskey–perhaps the best bargain available in rye , and a delight with vermouth.

At the moment, I’m serving as online teaching assistant for a class called “analysis of literature”. The students are of the usual caliber, but the required reading materials are surprisingly enjoyable. We have some Kate Chopin (“The Story of an Hour“), and some Robert Frost (“Two Roads Diverged”), and even some Ernest Hemingway (“Hills Like White Elephants”).

The first week’s essay assignment called for the students to start writing essays about literature by making use of one of a list of critical techniques. Now, I don’t imagine that the authors of this course’s textbook had any ideas of creating a new generation of new historicists or post-post-structuralists–this was, for the majority of my students, the first essay about literature they had written in many years, if indeed they ever wrote one at all–and so the list of possible critical methods was both short and amusingly simplified. My students could choose from :

  • A formalist approach, in which the critic talks about how the “tools” the author uses to make his point, such as setting, symbolism, plot, etc.
  • A reader response approach, in which the reader asks (and I quote the textbook) “what captured my imagination? Was it a feeling, an emotion, a curiosity, or an inspiration? Did it involve a desire to escape a present or past association?”
  • A biographical/historical approach, which requires the critic to do research (which is not fun) and also to spend some time speculating on the author’s motives (more enjoyable).
  • An archetypal approach, which has something to do with universal themes and mythology and I’m pretty sure neither I nor my students understood what the textbook was going for, here.

Not surprisingly (unless you are me, apparently, because I was surprised), the vast majority of my students chose the technique  labelled reader-response. However, none of them used the terms “jouissance,” “interpretive community,” or “erwartungshorizont.” Instead, the technique’s name was used as a banner under which all manner of critical atrocities might be committed with impunity. The practice of reader response, to these students, was less about the process of reading, and more about “things in my life that are sort of like the things in the story, as long as you don’t read the story too closely.” For instance, James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” produced reflections on “how I wouldn’t listen to my wife either, if she nagged like that,” and on “when I was a kid I used to pretend to be a World War II soldier in my back yard,” and also (surprisingly often) on “only God’s grace can save us from death.”

To which my complaint was (and I wrote this in the margins of the essays) that the term “reader response” is not an excuse to write an essay about yourself; you must still write about the book. That I am only interested in reading about their reactions to the text as a prelude to an explanation of what, specifically, provoked those reactions. That (alas!) being the authority on your own subjective understanding of literature does not free you from citing your sources. I did not mention to the students the somewhat more fundamental concept inherent in much of reader response criticism, that a division of “self” and “book” into separate entities is generally counterproductive for the reader, so that properly considered, you’re pretty much always talking about yourself when you talk about what you read (although the reverse is of course not generally true*). We can address the nuances of identity after next week’s essay, in which they’ll begin to tackle poetry.

I should also note that the most common response among my readers was, (again, not surprisingly) “literature is boring.” To which I responded “Indeed! How fascinating! Now tell me why, and how, and where specifically the author creates this effect of boredom. What boring literary devices are used in the process? What other boring things is this like, and unlike?” I’ll make critics of these kids yet.

*Except among graduate students.

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