Making Room

I’ve just gotten back from a trip (about which, as I said on Twitter, I hope to be able to write soon) to find it pretty solidly fall around here. Less weather-wise, though there is the beginning of a little crispness in the mornings and evenings, than in a more intangible sense of atmosphere; my online pals are pretty much all back in class (except for those of you on the quarter system; your calendar confuses me, seeming to derive from an entirely different cosmology from my own), preparations for the convention are no longer strictly behind-the-scenes, and things have generally taken on a slightly faster pace. The year has definitely begun.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, the change of calendar year has rarely inspired me to the kind of stock-taking and resolution-making that the start of a new academic year does. It’s time to break out the new notebooks, to put on your stiff new bluejeans and shiny new sneakers, and make a plan for the year ahead.

My plan this year involves launching a major new endeavor at the MLA and beginning to plot a couple of others. It also includes a bunch of talks and conferences, about which more soon.

But it also involves turning some part of my attention to the next Big Project, which I think last week’s trip helped me figure out some crucial things about. One of the key things that I figured out last week is that space and time for working on that new project will not magically appear in my schedule. If I’m going to make any headway on this thing, I’m going to have to make room for it.

It’s the kind of realization that seems totally obvious, as soon as you’ve had it, and yet betrays one of those continually recurring blind spots that I have about my work life: I cannot do it all. If, as many have observed, there are tasks you have which are urgent, and tasks you have which are important, and if the urgent stuff is often stuff that other people ask of you, ensuring that the important stuff is properly prioritized is totally on you. Everybody else would be perfectly happy for you to go along attending to the urgent.

I don’t mean to make it sound as though I’ve figured out that “everyone else” is infringing on my precious time. In fact, the issue is truly my own: my tendency is to agree to do every neat thing somebody asks me to do, and (as I noted a couple of weeks ago), I need to do a better job of sorting through those requests, ensuring that the things I agree to do are in fact the things that will best support what I want to get done.

What this boils down to: I have a big writing project that I hope to make headway on this year. In order to do that, I need to ensure that any small writing projects I agree to take on are working, at least in part, toward the goals of the big project.

That’s my resolution for this new academic year: I’m making room for the important. We’ll see how well I do at sticking to it.

Stuck

I find myself in that state again, in which I have a particular writing task — in this case a talk — with a pressing deadline, one that’s pressing enough that I really need to be working on it whenever I have time to write. (Being a talk, its deadline really can’t be blown.)

But for a whole series of reasons I won’t dig into too much right now, I’m struggling with the talk. It’s taking far longer to write than it should, and it’s just painful to work on. And so, as it drags on, the things that have been pushed aside in order to work on the talk are getting pushed further and further aside, and more deadlines are beginning to loom.

I’m caught in that eternal dilemma: put aside the most pressing thing in order to work on less pressing stuff that I might actually be able to knock off the list, but run the risk of not getting the talk done, or at least not getting it right? Or press on with the talk, hope a breakthrough comes quickly, and let the less pressing stuff continue to wait?

I have never found a satisfying solution to this particular kind of stuckness. What do you do when you’re caught in this deadline double bind?

Train of Thought

The funniest part of yesterday’s post — at least it’s funny to me — is how it got written: on my iPhone, on the subway. I remembered yesterday that, back when I started posting here semi-regularly again in the early summer, I began by jotting down some thoughts in this way, often standing with one elbow hooked around a pole, trying to keep my balance. I’d finish the posts started this way once I got in front of my computer. So I thought I’d try it out again, and yesterday’s post was the result.

Could my train of thought literally be a train of thought?

It’s more likely that these bursts of productivity on the train have to do with getting myself to start thinking before I get to my computer — in an environment with no network connectivity, where external circumstances often make it a good idea to pull inward and divert your attention from your surroundings.

I usually manage that by listening to French podcasts, which require a certain kind of concentration, but writing — perhaps a couple of quick paragraphs during the trip downtown — works even better, not least for helping to train my focus where I need it before I get to the office.

It’s easier to stay focused once I get there if I arrive with an idea already clearly in mind — one of those lessons that I think I need to relearn often.

Last Season, on Planned Obsolescence

One key problem with the blog as a platform for serial scholarship is that it’s much too easy to find yourself interrupted, to lose a train of thought.

Then again, this is a key problem with having a day job in general: that train of thought, whatever it was you were working on outside the bounds of the day job, always runs the risk of getting utterly derailed.

Oh, I’ve just got to get caught back up with what’s going on in the office, you say, and then I’ll get right back to that series I was working on.

But there’s that one upcoming deadline that has to be met yet, and that’s got to take priority. And there are the other many small details that manage to create a very convincing set of distractions.

One great thing about non-serial scholarship — the feature release, perhaps — is that its process of production, its fits and starts, are hidden from public view.

On the other hand, nobody’s really waiting for that feature release. And one can at least hope that gaps in one’s serial production — a little between-season hiatus, perhaps — might help to build anticipation.

I am hoping that this doesn’t require cliffhanger endings.

Elbow, Wrist, Fingers, Pen, Words

I’m at the Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute Annual Symposium today, which has been fascinating all the way around. Perhaps the most amazing part of the day, however, was a writing workshop with Peter Elbow.

Peter Elbow! Who started the workshop with a couple of freewriting assignments! As a fellow attendee put it,

The experience reminded me how enormously fruitful it can be to put pen to paper without knowing exactly what’s going to come out; in doing so, I actually figured out something new about one of the things I’m hoping to write — about which, I hope, more soon.

I also figured out that I don’t put pen to paper — literally, pen to paper — anywhere near as often as I used to both because of the host of aches and pains it now produces (my wrist can’t bear writing by hand for very long anymore), but also because I’ve gotten to be just as fussy about my pen-and-paper technology as I am about my computers. I really hated the pen I was writing with today, and wound up writing about that: the point was too think, the ink too clumpy, the flow completely off. It was hard to force myself to keep going; honestly, I’d have reached for the pen in my bag if Peter Elbow (Peter Elbow!) hadn’t told us to keep putting words on paper as if the room would explode if we stopped.

It made me remember that I had a meeting in the office a few days ago, in a conference room on the other side of the building — and when I arrived, I realized I’d forgotten to bring a pen. Rather than use the one a colleague offered me, I ran back to my office to grab my own.

I want writing to be comfortable. I want the right tools. But today, in a crowded conference room, using a bad pen on the wrong pad, not sure at all that I had anything to say, I managed to figure out something I hadn’t quite put my finger on before.

Perhaps disrupting my comfort levels — at least in short, controlled bursts — might help open up some new ideas.

Shamelessness

Collin published a fantastic post yesterday thinking through, among other things, love, writing, Roland Barthes, Etsy, and Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo. He’s had reasons for having fallen out of the blogging routine of late, reasons that are quite different from mine, but that seem to have had much the same effect: a vastly diminished ability to tune out the noise of the rest of the world and to focus in on what there is to be said and how to say it, without fear about how it’ll all turn out.

What he notes he’s learned from Etsy is a kind of “shamelessness,” a willingness to put everything out there regardless of what any given audience might think of it. The lesson Etsy holds for writing, he says, is a reminder to “just make the words fit together, put them out there, and get rid of the hope and fear that comes from obsessing about the outcome.”

This shamelessness is no small part of what I need to relearn as well, if I’m going to reignite things here. Some of the potential for shame I’ve felt around writing in public of late has come from the seemingly sudden visibility of my work and my position — if people are actually paying attention to what I write, shouldn’t I be really super careful about it? But some of it, I think, comes from finding myself still (again) in the gap between projects — the last one recently released into the world, the next one… not really very well conceived at all.

As I read Collin’s post, I was drawn to this notion of shamelessness as a condition for writing of the sort in which I hope to immerse myself. Shedding shame is a necessary precursor to blogging, I think, and that blogging is likely to be a key component in helping me around the main obstacle keeping me from writing these days: not being at all sure that I have anything worth saying.

When each paragraph has to bear the weight of the next Big Project, its fragility and its apparent emptiness become all too visible. When each paragraph is just a passing thought, a throwaway, something that might lead to the next thought, or might simply drift off on the breeze, that fragility and emptiness might be transformed into virtues.

So my task for the coming weeks is to work on just making the words fit, on just putting them out there, unashamed that they are nothing more than what they are.

A Constant Process of Not-Falling

The primary bit of awkwardness involved in not-blogging is the transition to once-again-blogging; there’s guilt and embarrassment, and an overwhelming need to explain where one has been and what one has been doing.

For my part, I have been doing this and this and this, and most of all, this. Among a couple of dozen or so other things.

It’s all fantastically gratifying. But I’m aware that as I’m doing all of that I’m continuing to not-write. And I’m also aware that I never really feel good about my productivity, my focus, my creativity, and so forth, unless I’m writing.

I keep announcing here various stabs at breaking the log-jam of not-writing, and then find myself continuing to not-write, overwhelmed by all of the other things in which I’m invested and involved. This is not one of those stabs, and it’s certainly not a declaration of breakthrough.

But it is a call to myself to keep rebalancing my priorities, to keep remembering that my life outside my official persona requires actual attention.

It is also a call to remember, as I told someone yesterday, that balance isn’t something you achieve. Balance in life, I think, is like balance in yoga: a constant process of not-falling. Hundreds of tiny adjustments, every minute, that produce stillness out of motion, calm out of panic.

So: reassessing, correcting, recentering. Transforming not-falling into balance, and not-writing into something more.

Networking the Field

Hi, my name is Kathleen Fitzpatrick. You may remember me from such conventions as the MLA, and from articles such as hey holy cow Stanley Fish wrote a whole bunch about my book.

Ahem.

It has been a head-spinning few days, needless to say. But I’m starting out today by posting the first of the talks I gave at the MLA, as part of Russell Berman’s presidential forum entitled “Language, Literature, Learning.” Any responses or comments would be greatly appreciated

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Networking the Field

I’m extremely pleased to have the opportunity to talk a bit today about the ways that digital communication practices are reshaping the fields of language and literature. These changes are of course at the heart of my book, Planned Obsolescence, just out from NYU, as well as at the heart of the work I’ve been asked to do in the new MLA office of scholarly communication, where we’re exploring the degree to which digital publishing and new forms of social media will affect our means of conducting and exchanging our work as scholars and instructors. A fair warning: I tend to think of my role within the organization – only half seriously – as being “chief transformation evangelist,” and so what I’m presenting today is significantly less research-oriented than it is polemic, the main thrust of which is this: the profession is already entirely digital. What remains is for us to catch up with what that digitality means, and how it means.

Anxieties about the effects of digital media abound: it’s too often taken as read that the technologies that facilitate such easy communication are causing our actual communication skills to deteriorate. There’s little new in this; any media theorist confronted with a narrative about the deleterious effects of new modes of communication will happily point to Plato on the “forgetfulness” that the technology of writing would produce in the souls of those who learn it, or even Alexander Pope’s sense of print as a “scourge” for learned souls. It has always been so: new technologies are perennially imagined to be not simply the enemy of established systems but in fact a direct threat to the essence of what it is to be human. Similarly, change in language is always taken for deterioration. Today’s text messaging is undermining spelling and grammar, and Twitter is replacing critical thought with soundbites. And everyone knows that the kids today are managing to graduate from college without knowing how to write.

There is, as there always is, a kernel of truth in these anxieties. Our students’ ways of knowing, as much as their ways of communicating, are absolutely in flux – just as are our own. But, as is always equally true, a too-close focus on the change that makes us anxious can cause us to miss other important things that are also happening. Such blindspots are apparent, for instance, in the National Endowment for the Arts’s 2004 report, Reading at Risk, which famously put forward a “a detailed but bleak assessment of the decline of reading’s role in the nation’s culture,” presenting compelling survey data that indicated that “[f]or the first time in modern history, less than half of the adult population now reads literature, and these trends reflect a larger decline in other sorts of reading” (vii).  The conclusions drawn by the report underscore a set of very conventional anxieties about the contemporary media landscape: the decline in reading uncovered by the report is not just a value-neutral shift in forms of information consumption, but rather “an imminent cultural crisis” (xiii), given the ties the report draws between literary reading and forms of active citizenship vital to a thriving democracy.  While the report is careful to stipulate that “no single activity is responsible for the decline of reading,” it nonetheless argues powerfully for the role of various forms of electronic media, including television, video games, and the internet, in contributing to the decline.

Such, in any case, is the conventional wisdom, which the NEA revisited and reaffirmed in its 2007 followup, To Read or Not to Read. But such apparently overwhelming evidence of reading’s decline in American life might run the risk of blinding us to signs of literary culture’s continued proliferation, including the increasing number of devices and platforms and services through which we read today. The field of the literary continues to expand, even if its forms are changing in ways that might make it more difficult to recognize and more difficult to understand. Even the NEA at last began to acknowledge this diffusion of the forms that the literary has taken in contemporary U.S. life when, in its 2009 update, Reading on the Rise, the agency noted that a great deal of reading is taking place online, even if it stopped well short of admitting that digital reading is of equal value to that of books.

Coming nearly a decade into the 21st century and 15 years into the internet’s popularization, this extremely belated acknowledgment that reading online is reading reveals something of the failures in conventional thought about the changes in literacy in the digital age. These failures can be seen in Reading at Risk, which in amongst all of the panic raises but fails to account for one curious bit of data: “Contrary to the overall decline in literary reading,” the report notes, “the number of people doing creative writing – of any genre, not exclusively literary works – increased substantially between 1982 and 2002. In 1982, about 11 million people did some form of creative writing. By 2002, this number had risen to almost 15 million people (18 or older), an increase of about 30 percent” (22). In other words, even before the spread of blogs and Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr, more people in the U.S. were doing more writing than ever before – and the opportunities for such writing, and for sharing this writing with others, have simply exploded since 2002.

Given this explosion, I would argue that the challenge we face today in our encounter with the digital future of our fields does not come from a media culture, or a student population, that refuses writing; instead, it lies in the need to recognize that the forms of writing that engage so many today are writing, and to figure out how to put those forms to work for us, rather than dismissing them as inherently frivolous and degraded. This is a challenge that many faculty today are meeting in their classrooms, by experimenting with individual and group blogs, with Twitter, and with other forms of social, networked communication, often to great effect. These modes of engagement with online writing often work, in to give students a sense of audience, of writing as an act of communication and critical exchange, that far exceeds that produced by the research paper; online, their words are subject not just to the scrutiny of a single evaluator, but to that of a broader group of readers engaged in thinking about the same questions. However formal or informal the location of the writing may appear to us in comparison with the properly MLA-formatted research paper, the act of communicating on an ongoing basis with a broader audience – practicing over and over the art of staking out a position, presenting evidence, engaging with counter-arguments – or frankly, even just the art of being interesting and amusing – can only help produce better writers, and clearer thinkers, in any venue.

This seems obvious enough. But the need to understand these new, networked, often less-than-formal modes of writing as writing applies equally to us and our own work. The horror that greets the idea of taking a blog seriously as a locus of scholarly writing – or even more, the idea of taking Twitter seriously as a form of scholarly communication – reveals a serious misunderstanding of the nature of those forms: what they are, and what can be done with them. The standard dismissal of Twitter as a scholarly tool suggests that no serious argument can be made in 140 characters, and there’s of course a real truth to that. But that dismissal betrays a failure to engage with the ways that scholars actually use Twitter today, and the things that can be done in those 140 characters: scholars share links to longer pieces of writing; engage in complex conversations in real time, with many colleagues, over multiple tweets; and more than anything, perhaps, they build a sense of community. This community is ready with congratulations and sympathy, and is eager to share jokes and memes, but it’s also ready to debate, to discuss, to disagree. More than anything, it’s ready to read – it’s not just a community of friends but a community of scholars, an audience for the longer work in which its members are engaged.

And it must be acknowledged that some of that longer work is taking place not in books and journals but on blogs. Many scholars today are publishing significant chunks of their writing in informal venues online, whether as a means of getting feedback on work in progress or as an alternative channel through which an author can reach an audience more quickly and directly. There may be work that cannot be done in the form of blog posts – there may be times when a scholar can benefit from the format of the journal article or the discipline of the book – but that the blog might not be everything does not mean that it is nothing. It is a mode of communication, of engaging with an audience, that must be taken seriously on its own terms. The blog has never been just a forum in which one can gripe about the travails of day-to-day life, whatever the conventional assumptions about it might suggest; the blog instead provides an arena in which scholars can work through ideas in an ongoing process of engagement with their peers. That spatial metaphor – the arena – is much to the point here: really grasping how something like a blog might serve scholarly communication requires understanding that a blog is not a form, but a platform – not a shape through which are extruded certain fixed kinds of material, but a stage on which material of many different varieties – different lengths, different time signatures, different modes of mediation – might be performed.

I have no doubt that many scholars experience a kind of reflexive horror at the thought of everyone having their own platform, or channel, if you prefer a broadcast metaphor; we’ve all already got too much to keep up with without everyone being free to publish whatever random thoughts happen to occur to them. But imagine for the moment what our writing lives might be like if we did each have our own platform. What if you were able to subscribe to a particular scholar, following her work over time and engaging with her as it comes into being? What if she followed your work as well, and the conversations you had around your shared work were able to produce more new collaborative projects? What if others were able to follow those conversations in process, providing additional input as you worked? What if those conversations produced a community of scholars that you trusted, a community that you could rely on to alert you to new work by new scholars to whom you ought to start paying attention? What if communities of scholars like this were able to say to one another the academic equivalent of hey, I’ve got a trunk of costumes, and we can use my uncle’s barn: let’s put on a show!? What kinds of performances might we develop on such a flexible, dynamic communication platform?

There are of course better and worse ways to use all of these writing platforms; there are pointless Twitter accounts, and there are bad blogs – just as there has always been, if we’re willing to admit it, no shortage of pointless journal articles and bad books. The difference is that in the age of print, in which access to publishing platforms was controlled, scholars came to associate the conferral of distinction with the moment of publication; the fact that a text existed meant that somebody somewhere thought it worthy of attention. In the age of the open platform, distinction is no longer associated with publication, but instead with reception, with the response produced by a community of readers. In order to take the work that is done on the web seriously, on its own terms, we need to understand how communities of scholars engage one another on such platforms, how they respond to the work published there, and how those responses generate more, better work. What we know to be true of our students is equally true of ourselves: the work we do gets better with practice, as more regular informal communication with one another leads to more meaningful formal communication, and a wider audience leads to broader engagements and better feedback.

That wider audience is at one and the same time a crucial aspect of the web’s open publishing platforms and a key component of what makes many scholars nervous about them. Open platforms like blogs and Twitter enable scholarly work to reach a broader reading public, but they also allow that broader public to respond, a prospect that can be quite anxiety-producing – no less for us than it is for our students. But if the crisis that has plagued scholarly publishing for the last several decades – not to mention the ostensible crisis that many pundits have noted to exist for the humanities in general today – has in some sense been produced by the relative smallness of the audience for our work, then doing that work in the open, where it can be seen, is a crucial step. If we reach out to a broader audience, by encouraging intellectual exchange with readers and writers beyond the academy, we have the potential not just to help our own work in and of itself, but to help the academy more broadly in its attempts to communicate its continuing importance to contemporary society. If we’re brave enough to engage directly with the public, we might have the opportunity to demonstrate a bit more about what it is that we do, and why what we do matters.

That communication requires an open platform, and it requires an openness to speaking a language with which a generally educated public can engage. And here we might begin to see creeping in a version of the concerns expressed about text-messaging’s degrading effect on teen writing abilities; is the network destined to dumb everything down? Will a scholarly blog inevitably turn into scholarship-lite? Of course not. But in the same way that writing on a networked platform has the potential to get our students to think seriously about audience, it presents that same potential to us: we could all stand to think about audience as well – what readers we want to reach, when, and why. There is a time and a place for highly professionalized language, for difficulty, and there is equally a time and a place for drawing more general readers into our discussions. Like our students today, we need to be fluent in multiple vernaculars, and we need to be able to translate our ideas across them.

Networking the field, by connecting scholars and their work through digital platforms, will no doubt have some disruptive effects: it will disrupt our assumptions about how distinction is created; it will disrupt our sense of when it’s appropriate to release new work; it will disrupt the ways that we traditionally engage with one another. But allowing these disruptions to be as productive as possible requires that we let go of our anxieties about them, that we understand that scholarly communication via these new platforms is scholarly communication, and that we allow these new platforms to teach us new ways of reading and writing together, in the open.

Things I Am Writing Instead of Writing Blog Posts

  • Grant proposals!
  • Reader’s reports.
  • Email. (Oh dear lord, the email.)
  • Letters of recommendation.
  • Conference presentations.

Things I have not been writing instead of writing blog posts:

  • Overdue journal articles.
  • Overdue book reviews.
  • Overdue articles for edited volumes.

What I need to clear out in order to get back to writing blog posts:

  • The to-do list.
  • The guilt about the undone items on the to-do list.

That is all.