Saturday, January 29, 2011

interdisciplinary pedagogy for literature and economics: a syllabus

Part two

Enough nattering about: here's a syllabus to suggest one way that this course could be taught. It's designed to cover a lot of ground, time-wise, but through a series of careful hops, rather than reading everything, or pieces of everything.

ENGL ###: Where Literature and Economics Meet

We do not think of the disciplines of literature and economics as having much relevance to each other: the former is about stories that are imaginary, and read for pleasure; while the latter is about “real” situations which affect the wellbeing of individuals, cities, and even nations.

This course is about investigating that conflict, and about seeing it not just as a conflict, but as a dynamic relationship between two disciplines that has developed throughout the last three centuries. We’ll be using the techniques of economic analysis to read literature in new ways; as well as exploring how imagination, creativity, and metaphor are vital components in the discipline of economics. Among the questions we will consider are: On what grounds do literature and economics intersect? Can we use math and statistics to study novels and poetry? What happens when we look at literature as a knowledge-producing discipline? What changes when we consider economics as a science of human emotion? How do authors use economic forces to create literary genres? How do economists use storytelling in order to do their jobs?

In the course of the quarter, we will read primary sources in the genres of fiction, poetry, and economic theory; and secondary sources that provide useful contextual information, and help situate both disciplines in their historical context. You’ll learn about how practitioners in each field have critiqued and/or embraced the other, and in studying the way that economic analysis affects the way that literature can be interpreted, you’ll gain greater insight into the reasons for tensions between the two fields today. You will also be able to look at each field separately from very new perspectives: how can literature work as a science? How can economics work as an art?

This course cannot substitute for a traditional economics class, and is not intended to serve as an economics course for non-business majors. Instead, it’s meant to give you the opportunity to explore how the two fields have shaped each other, and to provide you with a foundation for further study involving literature and economics, as well as experience that will be useful in looking at the intersection of other humanities and hard science fields.

By the quarter’s end, you should have developed:

• Familiarity with the common ground between the fields of economics and literature, and the relationship of the two disciplines to each other.

• Knowledge of economic principles and questions that affect literature production.

• The ability to form new critical questions about both literature and economics, and to analyze and discuss the role of each in terms of their categorization as art or science.

• Familiarity with the critical concepts of authority, ideology, and economic behavior, and with the different types of reasoning and literary devices that are common to both literary and economic genres.

• The ability to think critically about how knowledge about economics is distributed through multiple sources.

• Critical thinking skills for searching, gathering, evaluating, and presenting search data.

• Practice writing in different genres, including formal academic essays, and writing for the web.

Reading Schedule

Week 1: Defining economics, defining literature
Reading: various brief excerpts defining economics, and defining literature

Week 2:
Defoe: “An Essay on Publick Credit” (1710)
Maynwaring: “An Excellent New Song, Called Credit Restored” (1711)
Addison: “A Vision of Public Credit” (1711)
Smith: Excerpt, The Wealth of Nations (1776)
Wordsworth: “The Old Cumberland Beggar” (1800)

Week 3:
Malthus: Excerpt, An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)
Blake: “The Chimney Sweeper” (Songs of Innocence) (1789)

Week 4: “Professional” authors, and publishing in the 18th century
The rivalry of Edmund Curll and Alexander Pope
Pope: “Moral Essays: Epistle IV” (1733)
Pope: Excerpts from “A Further Account of the Most Deplorable Condition of Mr.
Edmund Curll, Bookseller, Since Being Poisoned” (1716)
Curll: Excerpts from “A Compleat Key to the Dunciad” (1728)

Week 5: The emergence of the genre of economics
Ricardo, Excerpt, On the principles of political economy and taxation (1817)
Martineau: Excerpts from Illustrations of political economy (1832-4)
Dickens: “Bill-Sticking,” (1851) and “Shops and their tenants” (1839)

Week 6: The gay science vs. the dismal science
Excerpts from J. S. Mill and Thomas Carlyle
David Levy: Excerpt, How the Dismal Science Got Its Name
Ruskin: “The Veins of Wealth” (1860)

Week 7: Economics in the literary industry today:
Greco, Rodriguez, Wharton: “Changes in the book publishing industry, 1945-2005”
Dustin Kidd: “Harry Potter and the Functions of Popular Culture”
Ted Striphas: “A political economy of commodity codes”
Chris Anderson: Excerpt from Free: the future of a radical price

Week 8: Defining economics, defining literature II: the classification of arts and sciences
Martin Gardner: “Science and the Unknowable”
Karl Popper: “The Problem of Induction”
Paul Kristeller: Excerpt, “The Modern System of the Arts”
George Dickie: Excerpt, Art and Value
Daniel B. Smith: “What is Art for? (NY Times website)

Week 9: The transmission of economic information and authority
Student website presentations

Week 10: The conflict between literature and economics
Review of readings from Week 2 & 3
Focus question: When do literary and economic texts represent the real, and when do they represent the ideal?

interdisciplinary pedagogy for literature and economics, continued

Part two

The challenge is that there's so much that could be done. As withneedle suggests in comments for part two of this series, you could do econometrics regarding genre creation and production (and Google ngrams makes that possibility all the more fascinating); you could look at character choices through the lens of economic behavior, taking into account that economic behavior encompasses far more than the obvious questions of to buy or not to buy, to invest or not to invest.

In order to make the class most useful, however, I think that it's necessary to find a way of making the integration of lit and economics into a sort of narrative in itself, something that helps avoid the combination simply becoming a gimmick. Narratives aren't an unmitigated good -- the inherited narrative of conflict between literature and economics has done plenty of damage -- and yet I think the best way to counter that damage is to show that different narratives exist as well.

The idea is that literature can help us understand the history of the discipline of economics – how it might have become an art, but instead became a science, and why it has remained a science. This is a slightly different way of looking at Mary Poovey's positioning of imaginative writing as a genre whose original purpose to help mediate value -- if she's correct in doing so (and I think she is), then the implication is that looking at how literary texts confront economic issues differently over time will naturally lead to understanding more about how the discipline of economics, and its cultural context, changed over time. A sustained course of study in lit. and econ. couldn't replace a quarter spent reading David Ricardo, Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, J. S. Mill, William Stanley Jevons, Carl Menger, and Alfred Marshall -- but neither could that course replace one mixing those economists with Ruskin, Dickens, Harriet Martineau, and Charlotte Brontë (or any other combination of literary and hard economic writers).

Today we see imaginative writing as an art, and economics as a science. Whether economics is actually a science, or will remain one, is a question that's been posed implicitly for years in any comment that implies that it takes mysterious talent or arcane knowledge to prosper using economic knowledge. It's posed more directly by David Brooks in a recent NY Times op-ed, which is then dissected by the late Maxine Udall. Notably, Brooks' idea that economics will "blow up" as a field centers around the role of mathematics vs. interpretation (or as Brooks puts it, "a subsection of history and moral philosophy"), and how important each one of these approaches is to producing economic knowledge.*

I think what Brooks is missing, or not addressing, is that the conflict that we're facing now is an echo of debates surrounding the emergence of the discipline of economics originally, both in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For a long time, depending on the author, a treatise might have an approach that was grounded more in mathematics, or in theory. By the mid-nineteenth century, economics was being discussed and written about as a science (and for that matter, "science" had taken on the meaning that it has in contemporary usage). In 1895, the London School of Economics and Political Science was founded; by 1901 it had been recognized as part of the University of London, and its degrees of BSc and DSc recognized as the first university degrees oriented towards the social sciences. But economics did not become a science, and has not remained one, without conflict.**

One of the costs of remaining a science is that economics has to display a different perspective on data than it would if it were an art. You could do an interesting study on the querelle des anciens et des modernes as it works differently in the arts and sciences, I suspect. But literature’s status as an art, its perspective on looking at information over long periods of time, and from different perspectives than economics, is one of the characteristics that makes it a useful platform for looking at economics. It avoids the tendency to look for norms and averages, and to make assumptions about whether aspects of economic livelihood are endogenous or exogenous (see Udall). It's why the two disciplines need each other.

* David Brooks is not an economist. Udall was, and she defends her discipline against the prediction that it will explode by acknowledging that in order to progress as a science, practitioners of economics need to diversify our methods for "conceptualiz[ing] and relat[ing] our theories to real-world phenomena."

** Just for giggles, check out the Google ngram for "art of economics." It's not as precise as I would like; for one thing, it's hard to tell exactly where single years match up with spikes in the data. But I do think it's interesting how it spikes up and down, and how several of those spikes seem to coincide with memorable financial crashes.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


I went to the first meeting of a procrastination/perfectionism group tonight, because I would like to be more capable at working through my internal censor when it inevitably starts grinding at me.

Of the other group members I shall only say that they made me feel welcome and seem like smart and courageous people. Not seem like. Are.

At one point, we were talking about feeling as though we don't read fast enough (I have yet to feel like I read fast enough. I either read too slowly, or too fast. Enough is elusive.) And it occurred to me that it's helpful to me to think of reading academic book chapters as not unlike proceeding through a level of Super Mario Bros. In a level of SMB (whichever version you prefer), you learn the shape of the level. And you get some coins, and some points, and maybe a mushroom, or a fire flower, or a star -- or maybe you don't! -- but you get that familiarity with the level, and you get through to the end so that you can go on to the next one. Maybe it's a really sweet level where you know where the warp tube is, or maybe it's more like 5-3, where you get pushed along and there are trees and sinking platforms. But you get through it. That's the point.

And a lot of academic reading is like that. The point is to establish familiarity.

Mind you, there's also close reading, where you focus intently, and go slowly, and pay attention to every word and how the sentences fit together.

Those two types of reading are no more the same thing than sanctioning (censoring/punishing) and sanctioning (approving). Much of the time, the two types of reading are used for very different purposes. They're not the same.

There are more complicated and intricate ways that I could keep exploring this and taking it further, but it isn't really necessary to do that in order to get to the observation that's most useful to me (and might be to you, if you're someone faced with an enormous reading load).

What's helpful is that I remember that reading a difficult chapter is in many ways like SMB 5-3. The point is to get familiar enough with it to get through it intact, fire flower, 1up mushroom, or not.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Review: The King's Speech

I'd been excited on seeing trailers, but for whatever reason, when I actually had time to go see this, as of about 10 days ago, I was lackluster, thinking that it would disappoint me by being obvious Oscar bait. But tonight was the SOTU, and I found myself wanting to watch something other than the POTUS (though I did read the speech directly upon coming home).

It's a really lovely film, and what struck me about it most is that it's wonderful in a lot of different ways. I thought it would end up being a film about a stammer, and about that familiar narrative that reminds us that even the most powerful people need friends. But in fact, it seemed to be also a film about aging, and how our fears age with us, and about bravery, and about being constricted by formality (because it was about the constrictions that you can't escape, as well as some cheap narrative about overcoming them). I think it's probably a measure of the quality of the film making that many of the moments in the film were vividly portrayed enough that I thought of them as both their own, tiny, films, and as part of a larger whole.

Admittedly, I'm probably part of the target audience for the film: I struggled for years with speech impediments, including a stammer; and I still feel anxiety not so much about being in the spotlight, but being in the spotlight in a position of authority.

I did love it, though. Not once did I want to take out my phone and see what time it was. I don't think there's a bad performance in the whole piece, and the way the dialogue transitioned from the serious to the acerbic to the sentimental was marvelous. David Seidler, who wrote the screenplay, hasn't written anything previously that I think of as remarkable, so it's pretty interesting to me that this came out so wonderfully. Maybe it's an indication that he's a brilliant editor of other material, i.e. Logue's diaries, etc? I suspect, right at the moment, that the best screenplay award will go either to him, or to Christopher Nolan for Inception.

One final thing: I think this is the first Desplat score that I've actually liked.

What I've been reading

I'll get back to the economic pedagogy posts later tonight, but I wanted to briefly note what I've been reading in the last year. I'd meant to do a best books read in 2010 post, but it looks as though I may not find the time. All of these are things I'd like to come back to and write more about, at some point.

All of these, and the ones listed below, I liked well enough to endorse here.

Plain Kate, by Erin Bow: okay, this was my favorite book of 2010. It'll get its own post soon.

StarCrossed, by Elizabeth Bunce: first book in a new series, looks as though it's going to have an interesting and complex take on politics and religion.

The Case of the Missing Marquess, by Nancy Springer: best surprise of 2010, because I had seen the Enola Holmes books in the bookstore, and reacted to them with the contempt that only someone who started reading ACD in 5th grade can manifest. "Who needs stupid books about Sherlock Holmes' kid sister?!" But then I read the w00t list over at Book Yurt, and was intrigued, and tried the first one, and was blown away by the balance of plot, strong character writing, and feminist thought that's so well integrated that it didn't feel didactic. I wish I'd been able to read these when I was 11 or 12; I really needed them then.

Behemoth and Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld: read on the plane ride back from London, which is usually gloomy since I am traveling in the Wrong Direction, and they were so much fun that I was cheered up and less inclined to mope. Mostly.

The Miracle Stealer, Neil Connelly: well-written portrait of conservative Christian culture (or at least, the version that I grew up with) that neither condemns it nor smooths it over. A good story, too.

All Clear, Connie Willis: I fully agree with the issues raised by Dame Eleanor, here, and yet, what struck me after I finished this was that for at least 48 hours, I would intermittently wonder what Polly and Merope were doing right now in 1940; and then have to remind myself that they weren't real. And in getting me to think that, I think the book did its job.

Monsters of Men, Patrick Ness: best/strongest ending to a trilogy EVER. In my experience. Needs its own post.

A Fistful of Sky, Nina Hoffman
A Mathematician's Apology, G. H. Hardy
Just Kids, Patti Smith
An Artificial Night and A Local Habitation, Seanan McGuire
Blameless, Gail Carriger
Rampant, Diana Peterfreund
The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss
Naked in Death, J. D. Robb
Tongues of Serpents, Naomi Novik
The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa: I like stories about math. This is a good one.
Changeless, Gail Carriger
Enchanted Glass, Diana Wynne Jones
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
Parasite Rex: Inside the Bizarre World of Nature's Most Dangerous Creatures, Carl Zimmer
My Mother Was A Computer, N. Katherine Hayles
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson
Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor: you should read this.
Silver Phoenix, Cindy Pon
Stealing the Elf-King's Roses, Diane Duane: unexpectedly wonderful urban technofantasy -- not what I was expecting from the title.
I Am Not A Serial Killer, Dan Wells: very good, and I need to find time to read the sequels.
Alcestis, Katharine Beutner: read this if you would like an expansion of the Persephone myth and/or stories about women with sexual desires/agency
The God of the Hive, Laurie R. King
Feed, Mira Grant
Ash, Malinda Lo
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson: I liked this, but I think it's telling that I haven't rushed out and read the other two books in the series.
The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, Alan Bradley: somehow I didn't love this quite as much as I expected to. Might be me, and not Flavia.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

interdisciplinary pedagogy for literature and economics: why it matters

Part one

So, yes, there's a big conflict between economics and the humanities. I think that literature becomes a major face of the humanities in that conflict, and so does art -- there are more stories about flaky artists and poets than there are about flaky historians and philosophers. But that's not really important. What's more important is that the conflict is also between economics and everyone else. That's a grammatically crude way of putting it, I know, but it's also a crude, rough conflict, messy because it can be fought on the grounds of knowledge or on the grounds of wealth. Both knowledge and wealth are forms of power, but they're not quite the same, are they? Or are they? Is one superior to the other, and why? There's no universal answer; and attempting to find one gets into even more unanswerable questions and sensitive subjects, such as the unpleasant question of whether I'm genuinely smart, or just lucky.

One consequence of the baggage surrounding economics is that it ends up buried in layers of mystification, political partisanship, and probably just general caution. Discussing it is like bringing up religion at a dinner party -- a risky idea. But the consequences of our reluctance to attempt to make finance a more public subject* is that financial illiteracy is a huge concern.

My ideas for classes aren't going to solve these problems. It'd be foolish of me to claim anything more definite than that I think they might help, rather than aggravate further. I think my point, my reason for bringing this up, is that it's really difficult to develop an effective interdisciplinary pedagogy for literature and economics without at least some consideration of these issues. What you get, most likely, is the same dull round of literary authors critiquing the market, and an arc that's meant to develop the realization that their thoughts regarding the market were actually more complex.

Let me be perfectly fair and direct: unless you are willing to develop a more interdisciplinary pedagogy, you cannot escape that same dull round. Therefore, it's not the fault of the instructors who teach such classes that they're stuck here; and I do not intend these posts or my ideas as a critique of their work. Institutional support is often low or nonexistent for any interdisciplinary work,** and the combination of literature and economics is not exactly an intuitive combination.

I should also note that the conflict between literature and economics isn't one that's only important to the practitioners and students of literary studies, or to the general population at risk for financial illiteracy. It's also important for economics, as Richard Bronk explains here, in a brief essay about his book, The Romantic Economist:

My starting point for The Romantic Economist was an observation made during seventeen years working in the world of finance. I was struck by an important mismatch between the way economists usually model economies and the way markets often work in practice. Economists normally rely on essentially static equilibrium models to make predictions about markets, and they assume that economic actors optimise their trading possibilities on the basis of rational expectations. Yet, as we are daily reminded, markets are dynamic and creative processes characterized by relentless innovation, self-reinforcing emotional spasms and massive uncertainty. And, in this uncertain world, individuals are driven as much by emotion, sentiment, intuition and imagination as by rational calculation and probability forecasts of future utility.
Bronk, whose book I haven't finished in entirety yet, but which I recommend, is a very rare creature indeed, which is to say, someone approaching the two discourses from a background with more experience in finance than in academic studies of literature. He's not the only one to remark on the importance of emotions and sentiment -- the topic of behavioral finance and its implications for the efficient markets hypothesis (EMH), is being considered by others as well.
And it would be interesting to have a class looking specifically at sentiment in the markets, and sentiment in the novel. But I'm not proposing that, at least, not quite yet.

*And no, I know that this wouldn't be easy, that there are myriad issues of embarrassment and self-consciousness and dangers of ostracization and so forth.

**I am lucky to be at an institution where the support for interdisciplinary pedagogy is pretty damn good.

interdisciplinary pedagogy for literature and economics: some background

I'd like teach classes that integrate literature and economics. Not just classes where the theme is credit satires of the 18th century or Victorian portrayals of the working class, but classes where it's foregrounded that literature and economics are two different knowledge producing disciplines, and that share methods. In both, imagination, metaphor, and logic are vitally important tools.

There's a lot of fractious posturing and well-rehearsed conventional thought about how literature* and economics aren't compatible. Those wacky poets and novelists, they have no head for money; while the cold-blooded economists have no heart, and maybe even no soul.

Among academics, there's also a lot of discussion about how both literature and economics are genres that could be called creative writing -- you write a poem, I write a check, and hey, both of them are creating something that isn't really there!. Money is valuable because we agree that it is, says John Locke; we agree that "a little piece of yellow metal, which would keep without wasting or decay, should be worth a great piece of flesh, or a whole heap of corn" (Sec. 37). It's really no different than the suspension of disbelief that we use when we're reading novels.

It became trendy a while back to suggest that lit. and econ. were rather two halves of one discourse, separated at the fall like the original humans in Aristophanes' account. Mary Poovey goes the farthest in that regard, writing that imaginative writing (as we would define it today) was one of three genres in existence at the end of the seventeenth century, whose main purpose was to mediate value. (The other two were money itself, and writing about money: shipping ledgers, economic theory, etc.) Marc Shell and Kurt Heinzelman, who produced some of the earliest writing on the genre, made similar moves; Heinzelman, if I recall correctly, is the first to wonder whether it would be possible to identify a point at which the discourse of literature and that of money really and truly parted ways for the first time. Money and fiction, like Sophie Zawistowska and Nathan Landau, the original star-crossed lovers. Or maybe more like George and Martha.

This idea of the two as separate halves of the same discipline has been made credible in part by the recognition that the Romantic poets and writers weren't quite so staunchly anti-commercial as previously thought; that their views on the subject were more complex than those of the stock character artists and writers in La Boheme. I'm summarizing here, and compactly, but Philip Connell's Romanticism, Economics, and the Question of 'Culture' provides a lot of historical data on the details.

Truthfully, I'm a little leery of the positioning of lit. and econ. as sundered discourses, because, as Rob Mitchell writes, "while metaphors, tropes, and modes of perception originating in finance may infiltrate literary discourse (and vice versa), if such slippage characterizes every other cultural discourse -- law, politics, medicine, etc. -- then finance and literature begin to seem like arbitrary points of departure and analysis" (8). But it might be right. My problem with it, and this is something I bring up because it's central to the question of a pedagogy uniting the two, is that it ends up being more distracting than useful. It's a move that feels defensive to me, like the lit. side is trying to passively and subtly assert its own importance in relation to finance, by connecting the two.

The conflict between them is huge -- let's acknowledge that. It's not just a catfight -- professional organizations in the humanities are counseling academics to find ways to "emphasize its practical and economic value." It's being called the "Crisis of the Humanities," and looking back over the multitude of articles covering it in the last three years (more than I can list here), there's been little or no development in the argument. It just gets more and more dire as arts and foreign language departments are shuttered.

I don't have an answer to that conflict, or some big insight that solves that problem. But I do think that it, meaning the conflict between the two, needs to be actively considered in the process of developing courses and pedagogy that brings the two subjects together, because otherwise, I don't think those arguments can move forward -- or at least, it's much less likely that they will.

I'll start addressing how we might surmount this problem in my next post in this series.

*(which, for today's purposes, I'm using to mean both the creation of fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction AND the study of said literature)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Trying out a new aphorism.

The difference between art and economics is that in the former, only the geniuses are mad, and in the latter, everyone is.

I promise there will be a real blog post soon.

But if you're looking for something to read, you should go and check out the excerpt of Jo Walton's Among Others at

I've been thinking about writing a Jo Walton post all weekend, because I went out Saturday night to buy eggs, to make bread, but the little convenience store 3 blocks away only had extra large eggs. Honestly, why? Surely it would make more sense to have regular-sized eggs on hand, for people who buy them both for eating plain, and cooking?

So I walked another 8 blocks, to the big grocery, where there were eggs, standard large size, thank you very much. And I bought them. And I would have walked home, but it was raining, and I thought, oh, I could walk to the university bookstore and see whether they have Among Others in stock, because I am curious about it and have heard that it is appearing early.

They didn't. What they had was Lifelode. Lifelode! Which I have been curious about for two years, but thought I might never encounter in the wild.

And $25 is a lot of money to pay for a book without seeing it first, especially when you are a reader who is either enraptured or entirely unmoved by the author's books. I don't mean this as a criticism of Jo Walton; it's just that she writes books that move a lot of different people, not all of whom are me.

Anyways, I looked at Lifelode long enough that I missed the first bus. And then the second. And then I gave up and bought it, resolving to skimp on the gluten-free treats and other luxuries, and reminding myself to hang onto the receipt in case I didn't care for it.

I needn't have worried though, because I love it just as much as I love The Prize in the Game, which I still think is the closest that any book has come to duplicating the music and intensity of feeling that I associate with opera in print.

You should buy Lifelode if you loved The Prize in the Game, or if you have a spare $25 around, but you probably don't -- so if you see it in a bookstore, then for god's sake, take the time to look at it, because it's worth missing buses for.

Anyways, I was uncertain about whether I would like Among Others, because what if I felt like I was reading it through a filter that stripped it of all emotion (which, sadly, is how I felt about both Ha'penny and Half a Crown, and I don't really understand why, which makes it all the more vexing. I'm pretty sure it's me, and not Jo Walton -- I should be clear about that.) I liked Farthing very much indeed.

But I'm reading it right now, in between bouts of working on another project, and it is very good indeed, at least at 15% of the way through. I'm not going to link to any of the reviews that are all over the place, because I'm of mixed minds on whether they'll be any good; I only started to read each, and then decided they were telling me something I'd rather hear from the book itself.

Instead, here are two quotes:

‎"Until the end, knowing them brought us nothing but good. And in the end, I don't think they understood. No, they did. They were as clear as can be. It was we who didn't understand.
I wish magic was more dramatic."

"Because this is after the end, this is all the Scouring of the Shire, this is figuring out how to live in the time that wasn't supposed to happen after the glorious last stand. I saved the world, or I think I did, and look, the world is still here, with sunsets and interlibrary loans."

And if they don't make you curious, well, then nothing else I can say would.

I might post a real review, if I think there's anything I can say about it when I'm done reading that will be useful to you. I might attempt to review Lifelode, except that it would be better if you read it without hearing me go on and on first.

The best thing about Jo Walton's writing, for me, anyways, is that she knows how to write about the searing intensity of feelings, not just joy or sorrow or raging anger, but everything in between, too, tranquillity, and even the light stirrings of desire. And she knows how to write about people not only feeling, but people seeing other people feeling, and reacting; and she does all this without the least bit of telling, rather than show. I don't know how she manages it, because it ought to be telling, especially in the latter case -- but it's always wonderfully natural -- the realization rising naturally from whoever is having it.

I suppose this is a real post; it's just sort of a scattered excited one, though I'm very serious, not feeling flip at all. A nice contrast, then, to diss reflections.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Through hell and back, part 3, the end

At some point near the end of December, or the beginning of January, I started referring to the chapter as the Lernean Hydra, because it felt as though with every component of it that I organized, I realized that there were two other bits that needed work. Ironically, that was actually the point at which I also began to believe, really and truly, that the end was in sight.

Well, the first end. M will have feedback, and I've already mentioned specific areas of concern to him that I'll want to keep improving. But I could actually identify the specific components of the argument, and the way that they needed to fit together that would make them compelling; I knew, too, what I was leaving out, and why I was leaving it out at this point.

And then it did start to be fun. I glanced back at a source from 1932, and realized that it treated my subject much differently than it's handled today, and it allowed me to add a nice show-not-tell component in the front of the chapter. I started to be excited about the fact that I was starting the chapter with a mid-century parody that gleefully roasted the poem which had been my main subject in the previous chapter, and that also supported my interpretation of it.

I did have to rearrange things, and I kept making voice memos on my iPhone about specific bits of tinkering I could do, tweaking tiny things that would make the argument as a whole more nuanced, more exciting. Honestly, I sometimes think that the best part of the iphone for me in terms of academic work is not InstaPaper, or Dropbox, or anything of those sophisticated apps that keep appearing -- it's that when an insight hits as I'm walking along, I don't have to stop and fumble for a pencil and paper, or try to write as quickly as I can think. I just have to yank out my phone and start talking.

There's little to say about the last parts, or little that I think will be helpful. On the day before I turned in the chapter, a discussion that I've been wanting to write for three years suddenly became clear, or rather, I knew how to start the first sentence, and then the second sentence, and so on. I didn't realize it at first, which is why it's written on a string of yellow 4x4 post-its that you can see on top of a pile of papers in my first post about this.

By that point, I was making lists of things to do, labeled high priority and low priority, and enjoying the satisfaction of crossing them off, one by one. And then came the moment when it was finished.

And then I realized that I was out of printer paper. Oops. (But this is what campus libraries are for, I suppose).

Today I'm prepping a fellowship application, and making plans for the next part of the diss. This requires a bit of thinking, because where I'd originally planned to do 5 chapters, it looks increasingly like I really only have room for 4. On the other hand, a lecture that I went to on Friday afternoon helped to crystallize a few ideas, and I think I know what the main subject of the conclusion will be, and thus, what direction this will go as I turn it into a book proposal.

Of course, M. might write back when he's read the chapter and say that I'm loony. But I don't think he will. He might say that the chapter needs a lot of work, though. That's okay. That, I can deal with.

Writing these reflections may be useful for other people, or may not. They've been very helpful for me, not only because they've allowed me to become more conscious of the matryoshka issue, and how that affected my mood; and if I can put that to good use in moving forward, then these three posts will have served their purpose completely.

I hope, if you land here, that reading these posts will be helpful for you, whether because they're a concrete record of someone else flailing about in frustration, or because you can feel superior, having flailed less, or flailed more gracefully. Or maybe just because using the voice memo feature on your ipod or smartphone will be helpful. Whatever the case, if you're here because you're in the midst of writing a dissertation or thesis chapter, I wish you well.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Through hell and back, part 2

School started. A lot happened. My director would have liked me to go on the job market (I would have liked to go on the job market!) – but in trying to summarize the dissertation and its chapters in a snappy coherent way, I ran aground: I just didn’t know the specifics of where each chapter was going in a way that meant I could summarize it in brief sentences, and yet have it sound like it was either finished, or on its way to being finished. I couldn’t even do that with the chapter I was working on, because the Aha! moment I’d had at the end of September would have sounded incoherent alone – it was a part of a good argument, but not enough.

With a colleague, I ran an unconference.

And I kept writing, if you can call the above fragmentary activities writing. In hindsight, I wish I’d given myself more time off. I did watch about 2 hours of television a week, and there were some nights where I was incredibly diligent, and others where I had a really hard time not putzing around on the internets. I always stuffed a book or article in my purse when I went out, and I should have given myself permission to just lay off. It was like I had a grindstone for a nasal piercing. Not cool. Not good. In this quarter, outside of plane reading on an emergency trip to London, I read 3 extracurricular, non-work-related books. For me to read 1 book per 3.3 weeks? Is insane, and not good.

I didn’t really realize how tense I was, only that my handwriting seemed to be getting worse and worse, and that, too, was frustrating. Then, mid-November, I treated myself to a massage, and discovered that my handwriting immediately showed a dramatic improvement.

Looking back at a draft document at this point, I can see that what I was doing was deleting a lot of ineffective, unambitious framing that I had crafted during the summer and early fall, and replacing it with better, albeit much rougher framework that took into account the historical economic argument that I was developing. By this time, the chapter had ballooned into 40-45 pages, and so I was also going through and highlighting the sentences and paragraphs that seemed to be most clear in communicating my point.

A note: in case it's not clear from other posts on this blog: I am not a linear thinker. In fact, I tend to instinctively think that the best arguments sliver seemingly unrelated ideas together, only to draw them together in the end. I think this instinct comes both from my proclivities for poetry, and for detective novels, and it has taken a very long time for me to learn that what I think will make the piece more interesting to the reader will not necessarily make it more helpful.

Actually, I haven't learned that yet. Near the end of this chapter, when all the pieces really were falling into place, I created a word document that loosely outlined the progression of ideas in the first half of the chapter in what I thought (and thought carefully!) was an organized fashion. Three days before I turned it in, I looked at that section with consternation, realizing that it just wasn't as smooth in its delivery of ideas as I had thought it would be. When I created a descriptive outline, I realized that it leapfrogged, paragraph to paragraph, between the 18th and 20th centuries. And it wasn't that the result was awful, but it was not going to be helpful in educating my readers about the background for the argument involving specific literary texts.

I set out to fix it so that it moved, in a mostly chronological fashion, through the 18th century, and then the 20th. It took a full day to do this (via the first descriptive outline, and then the second, with Very Specific Notes about transitions and linkages, and finally, the stitching everything else together. I still don't quite understand why that should have been the case; it doesn't seem as though it should have been such a slow process.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

After the end of the quarter, and grading, I went back to basically full-time work. I did go see Tangled (it's interesting -- the story in the film actually makes about ten times more sense than the "original"), but mostly, I just worked at the chapter. It wasn't that I was dedicated or enthralled in some sort of romantic passion for the problem that I was dealing with. Mainly, I felt like my arse was on the line, and my entire credibility with my director, the department, etc.

Then I had another breakthrough, on December 13th, when I went back to look at a secondary source, and realized that the way its author was framing his argument was really helpful -- not so much as a direct model for my argument, but because the way he was constructing it made it a really useful foundation for the argument that I was trying to develop. I had been having a hard time balancing its abstract and concrete dimensions so as not to make them look flimsy as all get out. And rereading D.'s chapter, I found part of the clarity that I had been looking for. I wrote 300 words paraphrasing his argument, and explaining their relation to mine, and those 300 words went straight in, in the end, unaltered, and they were part of 1300 words that I've been trying to articulate for three @#%%^#@(*%$#@$ing years.

I stopped work for 4 days, from the 22nd, to the 26th of December, prompted as much by the fact that I was just a bundle of panic attacks and nerves as the Christmas holidays.

I actually pounded through and finished, then, just before New Year's (or was it just before Christmas?), swearing that I just wanted to be done, that I would let M. tell me what he made of the argument, and not worrying about the sloppiness of the readings. I wanted so badly to be done, to hand something in, to feel more competent than worthless.

Of course, when I went through and looked at the thing before sending it off, it clearly wasn't done; the readings were there, but without the framing commentary that would be necessary to make them compelling, and that would connect the parts of the chapter together. FAIL. AGAIN.

One of the hardest parts of this chapter was internalizing the range of strategies that I had available to me for constructing an argument. I was thinking about this same challenge before the quarter started, looking at a couple of undergraduate composition papers that were meant to respond to a text that was about the dominant mood and atmosphere in Europe between WWI and WWII. The freshman students had, not surprisingly, had a difficult time with it, and it seemed immediately clear to me that part of the problem was that the very idea of writing about something as abstract as mood or atmosphere would have been entirely foreign to them; so foreign, in fact, that they might naturally have assumed that the scholarly text they were responding to was about something else, that all the stuff about mood and emotions was just the author being fancy.

I wasn't quite that naive; I did know about the different types of arguments that scholars used, and that few ideas or things were off-limits. But knowing that an argument about economic authority might be used, and realizing that I was constructing such an argument myself were two different things, and I do wish I had figured out a way to practice that as a graduate student doing coursework, and that it had been the subject of some form of workshop discussion in my seminars. I understand why it's not; or I think I do: many of the graduate professors currently teaching today weren't taught to teach writing (or perhaps taught to teach at all), and the assumption is that if you know how to write a sufficiently effective essay to get into graduate school in English, you must be good enough to figure out the intricacies and variants of argument styles.

Enough with the soapboxing. Despite the frustration of thinking I was done, and then realizing I wasn't, I did know that the chapter was starting to come together; I did begin to believe that it would be effective, and I believed I was close enough that I could be excited about it, and realistically, I have no idea where I would be without that vital burst of adrenaline. Not finished, I think.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Through hell and back: the downs and ups of one dissertation chapter (part 1).

Hey, look! It's a finished dissertation chapter!

From the top:

And from the side:

But hey, wait a minute. Neither of those are the finished chapter, which is a compact 77 pages, tucked into my director's briefcase with a bottle of single malt that I brought back from London.*

It's been in the works for about 6 months, this chapter, by some measurements; longer, if you consider that it's a close companion to the chapter that came before it. By those standards, it's been maturing for 11 months or so. And in the middle, I took a couple of months where I was working on a grant project that was only loosely related. I don't have any illusions that turning the chapter in today makes it done; in fact, as I told M, my director, there are some specific areas where I know it can be improved. But it's at the point where I could hand it off to M and be fairly confident that the chapter accomplishes a large chunk of what I want it to, and in the areas where it's weaker, either my intentions will be clear, or the fact that they're not really clear won't destroy the strength of the whole chapter.

I wanted to write about it while the experience was still fresh (I just turned it in today!) both for my own records, and in case other people who wander in to this blog want to know what one person's experience of writing a diss chapter was like. I ran into a classmate a couple years behind me in the mailroom this afternoon -- he's just starting to write, and hearing that I had just turned mine in, he said "Huh. So they can actually get finished?" And because I am not an asshole, I said they could, but not without recounting a bit of my hair-tearing and gnashing of teeth.

Disclaimer: all these experiences are mine, and may not apply to anyone else's dissertation chapter.

For a while, M and I were looking at the chapter as mainly important as the companion to a flashy chapter that came before it, proposing an unusual reading of a once-popular poem, backed up carefully with plenty of historical research. Chapter 2 dealt with a handful of poems, ranging from the canonical-but-not-read-anymore to the obscure-to-all-but-academics to the obscure-even-to-most-academics., and their genre. It was meant to be the natural extension of the argument in Chapter 1, applying to the neglected genre of the once-popular poem. I don't know why I thought it would be a quick pounding of the keys to get it done, though maybe it was just eagerness to get the chapter done -- after all, getting the first one done had been a struggle, both because the argument dealt with two fields (lit and econ.) and because part of the time, while working on it, I'd been unknowingly struggling with celiac disease.

But I thought I had it; I put together a 3 page abstract of the thing before leaving for England for the summer. I did manage to spend some time on it while there, but it was flat; so flat that if I'd written it and given it to M, I think he would have described it as bland. And nothing more.



It's not what you want a dissertation chapter to be. And it wouldn't have been a good support for the previous chapter -- if I'd let it stay bland, I fear it would have undermined the previous, more ambitious chapter, and suggested that the argument it presented was little more than an anachronistic gimmick.

So I wrote. I read the three poems I wanted to write about in detail over and over; I read criticism, and history, and economics, and sociology, often feeling as though none of the criticism (from whichever discipline) was making any lasting impression. I had a 6x9 Moleskine notebook, and I wrote in that, day in, day out. A lot of days, I think I hit 1000 words; but not all. I used the Pomodoro method. I stayed away from FB and Twitter (mostly).

It felt like I got nowhere.
I wrote notes that were brief terse phrases: "connect _________ with __________." Does Scholar B's concern apply here? To what effect?"
I wrote lists arranging the various components of the chapter and its arguments. And where the subarguments fit in. I drew arrows between certain main and sub arguments just to make sure I remembered the potential connections between them. Sometimes, because I felt prone to forgetting, I scribbled furious notes in the margins of my moleskine, reminding myself not to forget vital points of connection. I didn't forget them, mostly, but I didn't manage to do anything with them, either. During this time, I was working from approximately 10 in the morning to 8 at night on this, some days, and some more like 4-8, having spent the other part of the day on grant work.

Now, in hindsight, I can see that the stuff I was mulling over was useful, that it was almost certainly the basis that allowed me to make the leaps that I've made, especially in the last month. At the time, it felt like nothing, and that felt terrible, and I wanted to beat myself up for not knowing more about econ than I do, while I simultaneously reminded myself that self-flagellation would accomplish nothing. I wrote letters to friends and mentors, not to send, but to attempt to explain what I was trying to do, in the hope that it would help me make it clear in more formal academic language what I was trying to do. I think I had about 30 typewritten pages by the end of summer, and about 20 handwritten ones.

I came back to the states from England at summer's end, feeling fairly embarrassed about not having produced a finished chapter. M was invaluably neutral, both encouraging and non-threatening without giving any sense of coddling. I got down to work, both in terms of the chapter and prepping for teaching a new class. I read more primary sources. I read more secondary sources. I tried to make sure that the argument that I was trying to work with in terms of secondary crit matched up with the readings of the poems. It did, but it still felt flat.

So I worked, meaning that I read, and write, and tried to be tolerant of my writing when I was writing clumsily, because eloquence wasn’t the point at this stage. Sometimes, this worked well, but sometimes, I’d come back and look at something I’d written a few weeks or days (or months) earlier, and be appalled at the sloppiness of it.

My writing process is a little odd (compared to the way it worked when I was just writing 8-10 or 12-15 page papers), in that I often have a main Word document with the current draft of the chapter, and then as it progresses, I tend to draft in separate TextEdit documents, often almost freewriting, but sometimes veering into more formal language when I realize how I want to get a point across. Sometimes, sections of these documents end up pasted into the main dissertation, but often they don’t. Some of them are me actually thinking, and some are like the short papers that graduate professors often ask students to write as a way of “teaching” the assigned readers. I’ve grown really attached to this style, whether I’m using Scrivener (which I’ve done for one chapter) or just using TextEdit, and saving documents in a folder. I like Scrivener, but the font and formatting issues sometimes drive me nuts – or to put it differently, sometimes I really like composing in plain text. I also, much of the time, feel like I can’t think straight unless I’m writing, rather than typing.

I held lengthy, detailed dialogues with the authors of criticism in the margins of their pages. I marked things with bookdarts. I made diagrams mapping the congruence of ideas between the texts, and the criticism.

I worked on the chapter most of the time, which means that when I wasn’t planning lessons, I was peering at my notes, or rereading Barbara Herrnstein Smith, or E.P. Thompson, or simply trying to sit still and think. I videochatted with the SEL each night; and he was valiantly supportive and caring, meaning that he asked me good questions and listened to me try to talk through the argument, and encouraged me to go to bed, rather than try to subsist on 3 hours of sleep a night (noting, as I recall, that Margaret Thatcher had claimed that she was able to do so (but implying, was she really who I wanted to emulate? No.)). I wrote letters to the SEL in response to his questions, also unsent, and one of them, dated 26 September, became a document that I went back to again, later, as I was trying to sort things out.

At the end of September, one night, at about two in the morning, the imaginary dialogue that I was having with one of my economic critics suddenly clicked into place, and I knew I’d realized something important. I filled three or four single-spaced pages in my Moleskine, and noted on Facebook that what I thought the chapter really needed was for me to be gutsy and risk-taking both in terms of the lit-crit argument and the economic argument. (And that is certainly true. But one of the most unfamiliar parts of dissertating is understanding the larger and smaller arguments that fit together in the chapter, and how they fit together. I thought at the time that I was almost done, and yet I obviously, absolutely wasn’t.

If I could go back and tell myself one single thing, it would be a reminder that a dissertation chapter is made up of arguments linked and nested like matryoshka dolls, and that finding a piece of the argument is occasion for celebration. Instead, I treated it like the buzzer indicating the start of the Final Jeopardy round, meaning that I had 3 days to finish (my arbitrary estimate of the 5 minute FJ in terms of chapter writing) – and then became terribly angry and dejected when I didn’t manage to follow through. I thought I was betraying my director, my SEL (whom I excitedly told that I was close to being done over and over again), and most of all, myself. And this experience really colored the 4 months of writing that followed, such that, on New Year’s Eve, I thought (and rejected) writing a Facebook status about wishing that I could spend less of 2011 feeling utterly incompetent.

It was not that bad, by the end of 2010. In fact, it was getting a lot better. But because I hadn't grasped the matryoshka concept, I felt rotten about not having finished, instead of feeling good about having climbed this far up the slope of the chapter.

That is the foremost thing I'm going to attempt to remember as I move forward with the next chapters.

* I hadn't actually intended to give them both to him at the same time, but like I told him, it's a long chapter, and will take a little while to consume The whiskey will take longer to consume, and it's the better quality object.

Zaw Artisan Pizza and Mariposa Penguinos

Myth: I was sure that only buff male athletes ate whole large pizzas in one sitting.
Fact: I eat whole pizzas from Zaw Artisan Pizza in one sitting.
Fact which is almost too good to be true, but is true, nonetheless: I don't feel awful and overstuffed afterwards. This is not because the pizzas are skimpy, though they are intentionally thin-crusted.

If you're in the Seattle area, and you like pizza, and especially if you're on a gluten-free diet, you need to check out Zaw. Actually, if your home is within moderate driving distance of Seattle, you need to check out Zaw. They make the best pizzas that I've ever had. And the pizzas are unbaked, so if you need to pick one up on your way home from work and pop it in the oven a little later for your family, you're fine.

I did not plan to eat the first Zaw pizza that I bought (pumpkin puree, roasted pumpkin, maple syrup-caramelized onions, Isernio's spicy sausage, and mozzarella) in one setting. But once it came out of the oven, there was just no way I wasn't going to. And if I hadn't, my cat, who kept trying to grab pieces of it, would have figured out how to get into the refrigerator before I could eat the leftovers.

I don't think I need to say anything else about them, except that any restaurant that comes up with a pizza with prosciutto and arugula is taking the art of the pizza to a whole new level. And the Cowardly Apricot pizza, which I had tonight, is equally sublime.*

The only other points that I should make are that they have reasonably priced bottles of wine, and salads: and in said salads, they do not skimp on the cheese.

*Yes. I am a Romanticist, and I called a pizza sublime. Not just any pizza. Zaw pizza.


Another true story. When I was in elementary school, I sat next to two boys, Nathan Zwink and Jesse Harris, and sometimes they were jerks, and tried to flip up my skirt, and other times we got on just fine and built tunnels in the school sandbox, and dug deep enough to hit water (about 10-12"), and crafted networks of tunnels and "underground" lakes.

And in 4th grade, Nathan and I were in the same class, and seated near each other, and every day at lunch he offered to trade me his Hostess Choco Bliss for my Fruit Roll-up, and I eagerly accepted. My household was one in which Hostess products were absolutely forbidden, as was Wonderbread.** I have no idea why Nathan was so willing to trade. Was it an elementary school crush (as one friend has suggested)? Or did he simply prefer fruit roll-ups (which, I won't deny, are delicious), to Hostess products?

That daily lunchtime trade is one of few aspects of elementary school that I vividly remember. A couple of years ago, I had a chance to eat a Hostess chocolate Ding Dong, and, well, it just didn't hold up to my 4th grade memories. The Choco Bliss, I realized, was as ephemeral as the memories evoked by Proust's madeleine.

Or so I thought, before I got hold of the Penguino cream-filled chocolate cupcakes by Mariposa Bakery.***

They were so good that they led me straight to a moment of religious aporia: do Hostess cupcakes have souls, and do they believe in the transmigration of the soul?

Because if they do, then the really good Hostess cupcakes are rewarded by being reincarnated as Mariposa chocolate cupcakes. The prospect is so appealing that it almost makes me wish I were a cupcake. More than that: it makes me wish that I could be good.

Do I need to say any more? No? I didn't think so.

**(Oh, Wonderbread, how fascinated I was by your celebratory packaging; how disappointed by your spongy reality.)

*** You can get them by mail order, but they might also be in stock at your local Whole Foods, or Metropolitan Market (if you're in Seattle.)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A dream job

Note that I say "a" and not "the."

I live in what is, most of the year, an adorable and enviable apartment. Hardwood floors, a fireplace, a tub, black and white tile in the kitchen, crystal doorknobs, with plenty of windows, lots of light, and even a small yard and garden.

But it has single-paned windows, and not especially wonderful insulation, and in the winter, especially when the temperature range is 25-40F, it is a singularly unpleasant place to be, and one that holds heat badly.

I was whimpering about this on FB, when my friend J., whose husband was traveling overseas for a week, invited me to come and stay with her in her lovely, warm, insulated house. I hesitated just a tiny bit, though really I could have kissed her. Repeatedly. Being cold is miserable, and I am sensitive to it, even when I'm wrapping myself in microfibers and fleece and down blankets. I find it challenging to type and read if I restrict my mobility too much, and I don't love the utility bills that accompany the warmth of my heaters.

"You don't mind if I cook, do you? Because I have a 5 pound squash I need to do something with...."

No, she didn't mind (though I shouldn't feel obligated), and in fact, she loves squash, while her husband doesn't so much. Brilliant!

Last night I made squash pancetta risotto; tonight I took the rest of the squash and turned it into an apple-squash soup, and served it up with kale crisps and an eggplant-tomato tartare. I had to reassure J. that this was normal behavior for me (well, normally I might not do all three on the same night), and that, in fact, I was in heaven, having a chance to cook for an audience.

Tomorrow I actually will keep it ultra-simple: Greek salad, and yam fries. (I do seem to be in an orange root vegetable phase, but I'm taking care that each version tastes different).

But it got me thinking. What I would love, is this: if people could hire me to come to their house, learn what they like to eat, and cook dinner for them each night, in quantities that would provide leftovers for the following day's lunch (optional, since I know that some people are decidedly anti-leftover), for periods of 3-7 days. I wouldn't need to live in, though I'd need access in the afternoon each day if they weren't home.

I wouldn't want to do it for less than three days; and I don't think I'd want to go more than seven. Maybe no more than five in a row. I wonder if a market for that exists: a sort of staycation treat, perhaps? Appealing to people who like restaurants, but would like a restaurant experience customized to them, and/or who don't love the hassle of going out. All dishwashing included, natch; and for an additional fee, I'll teach them to make the dishes themselves.