Monday, August 14, 2017

First Day of Orientation at the U of A!!!

Actually, this was an optional meeting, but I wanted to acclimatize myself to the university as quickly as possible. The department textbooks advocates a genre-based, rather than a process-based, approach to writing, so that's a bit out of my comfort zone & I needed as much info as possible before composing my syllabus.  Anyway, a few observations:

  • 95% of the people there were GTAs -- only 5 new lecturers. Should have expected that, I suppose, but I didn't.
    • Speaking of the GTAs, they're quite the young pups. Given that my doctoral program had a slight higher average age for incoming grad students, I'd forgotten what 23 / 24 year old grad students looked like!
  • People are really friendly. I'm really going to enjoy here, I think. (But I already knew that!)
  • Much of the pedagogical and rhetorical information on which this writing program is based is familiar to me from MTSU's teacher training. So, while they're'll be a learning curve, it's going to go pretty quickly.
  • We have a nicely laid out, institution-wide attendance policy and late-work policy. I love when things are nicely laid out like that -- saves so much stress in case there's ever a grade challenge. (I've never had one, but it's a worry that comes with the job.)
  • Strangely enough, based on absences, faculty actually have the ability to drop students from their courses. It's a matter of managing enrollment, but I've never heard of something like that. There's a lot of wiggle room, too -- we may drop students based on attendance. Given that ambiguity, I'll be trying to avoid using this option as much as possible, except in cases of otherwise certain failure of the student.
I have another optional orientation meeting tomorrow, then the big mandatory one on Wednesday. Looking forward to both!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Tolkien and the 1954 Nomination of E. M. Forster for the Nobel Prize

Now that I've received the official word, I'm pleased to announce the appearance in the fall of Mythlore of my essay, "J.R.R. Tolkien and the 1954 Nomination of E. M. Forster for the Nobel Prize in Literature." 

As you can probably tell from the title, my theme is that mysterious case of why Tolkien would have nominated Forster -- whom we never knew he admired -- for literature's highest prize. To my knowledge, only two scholars have even discussed that situation at any length, both bloggers: Jason Fisher here and John D. Rateliff here.

Basically, I have two contentions. The first revolves around possible literary reasons for Tolkien's nomination. Verlyn Flieger has previously posited that Tolkien could have been influenced by Howards End, but I'm placing my money on A Passage to India. Although postcolonial issues did not occupy much attention in Tolkien's own writings, he certainly knew about such things himself (having been born in S. Africa), making him aware if nothing else of what colonialism did to subjects and rulers alike. He has a telling passage in one of his letters where he describes the English as quickly losing their "generous" sentiments when they reside in the colonies for any length of time, and that's basically a plot summary of A Passage to India. The second major factor, though, is Forster's awareness of the tension between the universal and the particular --i.e., a universal citizen with no overwhelming allegiance to any one country, and the citizen of one particular to the exclusion of other countries. Tolkien, like Forster, sympathized with the universal perspective.

I think my second contention, however, is even cooler. 

Basically, Tolkien didn't make his Nobel nomination in isolation. Two Oxford colleagues, F.P. Wilson and Lord David Cecil, joined him in nominating Forster. Analyzing the Nobel website suggests it was one nomination letter signed by all three individuals, so the question is, why did they collaborate on this? 

My hypothesis is that they were helping C.S. Lewis get elected to a professorship up in Cambridge, which was also happening in early 1954. Tolkien and Wilson, incidentally, were both electors for that chair, and we know that chair was being created specially for Lewis. I think their nomination of Forster, one of Cambridge's most prized writers, could have been a bargaining chip to help smooth the creation of that chair.*** Unfortunately, there's no hard evidence for my hypothesis, but I think I make a compelling case out of what information we do possess.

So, look for details of that in the next issue of Mythlore.

*** The title of my piece, incidentally, hits a slightly different angle from the one my wife wanted me to adopt: "Inklings Scandal Uncovered(!): The Old Boys' Network in Action."

Monday, August 7, 2017

A Memorial Post for a Valiant Backpack!

Backpacks and shoes live a hard life when they hook up with me. I'm murder on them, walking on average 30 miles a week and always carrying 20-40 pounds of stuff. Alas, it's time to retire my current faithful backpack with a commemorative post. He was originally a Christmas present from Martina seven years ago. Despite a lifetime guarantee, he's pretty beat up and close to falling apart, and it's time to find a new stuff-holding companion as I embark on my journey to Arizona. He's been quite a few places with me, including London & Barcelona & Paris & Prague, as well as all throughout my doctoral program, and he's held my stuff pretty much everyday since I got him. Old backpack, I salute you!!

Friday, August 4, 2017

Mary Shelley & The Last Man

The 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is coming up. In preparation for an article I'm hoping to write, I've been reading up on her. My main target thus far is her other science fiction novel, the apocalyptic The Last Man (1828). It's . . . . well, it's not that good. Part I describes the narrator's friends, clearly based on Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, plus all their tedious love affairs and marriages. That's to be expected from a novel from that period, I suppose. Part II describes some politics stuff, plus the beginnings of a vast plague. Part III is where the plague finally wipes everyone out.

Where the novel does well is:
  1. Nice portraits of Shelley and Byron. Unfortunately, that doesn't help The Last Man succeed as a novel.
  2. The trepidation of the plague as it begins to sweep over the world. Powerful sense of doom, only slightly ruined by the excessive verbiage in which Shelley likes to say things.
    1. On a related point, it was nice to see Shelley discussing, even if only briefly, Asia, North and South American, and even Africa. A couple times she notes with compassion the downfall of the Aztecs and the Incas. All that shows much more world-consciousness than I've come to expect from fiction of that period.
The flaws, though, are pretty numerous:
  • Ridiculous levels of showing, not telling. Stuff like, "I couldn't do full justice to the impassioned speech Raymond gave Parliament, so I'll just say it was magnificent and describe what happens as a result." So, so annoying -- and a missed opportunity by Shelley.
  • Lack of political drama. Don't get me wrong, tons of political events happen in this novel. It's just that, in line with the "showing not telling" strategy, they're all relegated to the background, a mere backdrop for the personalities of Adrian and Raymond and their love affairs, which are really the main narrative focus of the novel. Raymond's accomplishments, for example, make him a world-historical figure if ever there was one, but the world he affects is presented as so subordinate (in terms of interest) to his personal idiosyncrasies that Shelley simply wastes an opportunity for creating a gripping political novel of the first order. The downfall of aristocracy, after all, shouldn't be relegated to a footnote aimed at showing what a great guy Adrian (based on Percy Shelley) was.
  • Narrative structure. The Last Man is simply someone writing his memoirs -- Lionel Verney basically applies a 1st-person omniscient perspective. That's only a technical flaw, but it's worth noting because of the complicated framing device for Frankenstein.
The science fiction in the novel is also pretty bare.  The future has air travel by balloon, but otherwise Shelley simply takes early 19th-century England and extrapolates it unchanged into the late 21st-century. The future setting gives her greater scope for politics and, of course, the plague, but as mentioned the world Shelley creates takes a distant, distant backseat to the personalities of Raymond, Adrian, and all the endless page-filling love affairs.

Throughout it all, too, is the vague sense that you never quite know why events are happening as they are. Stuff just happens; there's nothing the characters are trying to accomplish from chapter to chapter. Hence there's a major sense of drift as you move along through The Last Man. Clearly, Shelley expects her character portraits and her intense imagery to sustain narrative interest, but that just doesn't quite work for me.  But one thing I thought rather poignant -- in fact, it's striking me pretty intensely just how deeply Mary Shelley was in love with her husband & how much his death traumatized her. It's really heart-breaking, and we can see that, for her as she was writing this novel, she was perfectly well sustained by her personal interest in the characters she was portraying. For example, this final passage, nominally from the "last man" left alive on earth, applies just as much to Mary Shelley herself:
“At first I thought only to speak of plague, of death, and last, of desertion; but I lingered fondly on my early years, and recorded with sacred zeal the virtues of my companions. They have been with me during the fulfillment of my task. I have brought it to an end—I lift my eyes from my paper—again they are lost to me. Again I feel that I am alone” (III.10 339).
Damn. Poor woman.

Anyway. All in all, I'm glad I read The Last Man, but I'm just as glad that I'm done reading it.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Middle Tennessee State U. -- An Appreciation

With my big move to the U of A in Tucson just over a week away, the MTSU nostalgia's starting to hit me pretty hard. It's odd -- I don't get particularly attached to places, and I don't have much "school spirit" for any of the institutions I've attended, at least with the exception of Lycoming College, where I spent three semesters immediately after high school. Still, I've been reminiscing how fortunate I've been in the opportunities given me by MTSU's doctoral program, and how little confidence I had in that program when I first arrived.

When I was applying to graduate programs in late 2011, I found MTSU entirely by accident -- unsure of where to go for a program that emphasized fantasy and science fiction, I browsed The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts looking for professors, and I found one that taught at MTSU, which I had never heard of before. Looking through their faculty page, I saw several professors had similar interests to me, so I instantly dubbed it my backup school. The knock against MTSU was that it had virtually no academic reputation, mostly because, as I later learned, its doctoral program had been in existence less than a decade. A couple other things also raised my suspicions. It had a cheap applications fee, which is awesome but also reeks of desperation,*** and it didn't even require a writing sample from prospectives PhDs. That was a red flag if anything else. Still, I applied anyway. At that time in my life, even a bad doctoral program was better than none, and that quickly turned out to be the right decision -- I lost my job at a bookstore when it shut down a few months later.

Five years later, I realize how many opportunities MTSU has really provided. So, the following list will be a list of awesome things it does. I'll leave off my great good fortune in finding David Lavery, my dissertation director, since that's not something any institution can plan for. (I.e., you can bring in famous and well-published faculty, but finding someone talented at helping his/her students succeed is more a shot in the dark.)

So, here are the program-specific things that, in my view, really helped build my academic skills and c.v.:

  • Rigorous and up-do-date pedagogical training.

  • One interview question I got this year was, "Who are the composition theorists who've influenced you?" The only reason I had an answer to that question was because of MTSU's mandatory course in rhet/comp theory. Sure, I grumbled when I took that class -- oh, how I grumbled, if only silently. Still, job ad after job ad asked about your pedagogical training, and that course helped me tailor my cover letters appropriately.

    The training went well beyond that one course, though. As beginning GTAs, we worked a full year in the writing center, and I learned what a wonderful thing writing centers actually are. Then, depending on good evaluations and so forth, we got to teach several different courses: two freshman composition courses, ENGL 1010 and 1020, and our sophomore-level Introduction of Literature course. Not many programs permit its graduate students to teach literature, but we got that extra experience. 

  • Dissertation Writing Fellowship

  • A full year's of funding for doing nothing but write one's dissertation is, needless to say, vastly important. These are competitive, so not all our grad students get one, and many schools offer something similar, but this fellowship was absolutely huge for enabling me to develop my ideas without distraction. And it also allowed me the leisure to publish a few peer-reviewed articles, which vastly increased my odds on the job market.

  • Scientia et Humanitas

  • Now, I dare say that very, very few other schools have something like Scientia et HumanitasScientia's awesome for two reasons. First, it gives graduate and undergraduate students a valuable introduction to academic writing and the peer review process. Second, for the staff members, it radically hones their academic skills. I served Scientia in every capacity possible, including editor in chief, and it did more for my writing and my critical evaluation than any course or set of courses I ever took in my graduate career.

  • Departmental Awards

  • One way to make your c.v. stand out among other recent doctoral graduates is to have awards and other marks of distinction. MTSU's program offered several: teaching awards, tutoring awards, writing awards, and merit awards. I was a bit shocked at how few of my peers actively sought out these things, but that betters my chances, I suppose. These awards also permitted us to earn more money directly for our academic writing than we probably ever would for rest of our careers!

  • Service Opportunities

  • An under appreciated aspect of c.v.-building. MTSU stressed this (in direct contrast to my MA institution), so I added several lines to my c.v. that way.

  • Conferences

  • I never went to a conference as a MA student because they terrified me (and my only interest was in studying anyway). And my first conference was only during my first semester at MTSU, meaning that I got accepted before I realized how much my program actually pushed them. On one hand, they liked to emphasize conferences because raises student professionalism without costing the department anything (funding is acquired through the College of Graduate Studies). On the other hand, though, their encouragement motivated to attend way more conferences than I otherwise would have. So, kudos to them for that.

Now, as something else that goes without saying, just because a doctoral program offers certain opportunities, that doesn't mean that all its students know about them, care about them, or have either the motivation or the talent to take advantage of them. Personally, I think I managed to squeeze the absolute maximum usefulness out of my program. There's a few other things I could have taken advantage of, but there's only so much time in the day, and I tried to be constantly proactive about my career. And there were several things that I just picked up on my own -- writing reviews, for instance, or joining professional societies.  But, as I reflect over the last five years, I realize that things could not have turned out much better than they did.


***Several years later, I learned that MTSU has a really high acceptance rate. Although we have rejected applications to our MA and doctoral programs in the past, we receive a very low number of applications in general, which means that some years there's a legitimate worry that we might have more assistantships to give than applicants to give them to.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Tolkien Journals Do It Better

The peer review process is infamously slow. Everyone knows the familiar slog: you poor blood, sweat, and tears into writing an article, send it off to a journal, and 4-6 months later (sometimes more!) you hear a response. In theory, there's no reason the process needs to take so long -- it's only a couple hours of work for the reviewer, maybe more if the submission's worth the effort. But peer review is a thing where very busy academics are doing volunteer labor that, in the grand scheme of things, does very little to advance their careers. Reviewing articles is a service to the field, but it's ridiculously easy to put one off when you're teaching, grading, writing, researching, serving on committees, attending conferences, and all the other hosts of things you must do as an academic.

Hence, you can only imagine how impressed I am with the speed with which I've gotten peer reviews from the various Tolkien journals. Thus far, I've offered submissions to Tolkien Studies, The Journal of Tolkien Research, and Mythlore. The response time? In order: 6 weeks, 2 weeks, and 3 weeks. Even the longest of those wait times, six weeks, is a breakneck pace in the tortoise-paced world of academia. I'm probably just getting lucky with this, but still, in the past I've waited four months for a response from other places. I've heard other journals taking upwards to a year to respond, although I've fortunately not encountered that myself.

All of which goes to show: Tolkienists do it better!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

My Productivity Record for Aug. 2016 to Aug. 2017

It sure would make sense to do these productivity reports for a calendar year, but the August-August timeline -- basically the academic year -- works just fine too, I suppose. In my previous yearly productivity report, I managed 63,000 words of writing, most of it publishable, and I expressed hopes that my upcoming year on a Writing Fellowship would see that output rise. I didn't quite make that, primarily because of job applications and the massive revisions my dissertation underwent during February and March, which meant that I couldn't accomplish any new work. But even if I wasn't quite convinced about the necessity of those revisions, at least the beast is done, and life's going good.

So, the output:

  • Essay on narrative theory and world construction in The Hobbit (under review) -- 6,000 words
  • Essay on J.R.R. Tolkien and why he nominated E.M. Forster for the 1954 Nobel Prize (forthcoming) -- 9,000 words
  • Essay on Glen Cook's Instrumentalities of the Night series (revise & resubmit) -- 7,000 words
  • Dissertation chapter 4 -- 20,000 words. (Yes, it was a long chapter!)
  • Dissertation introduction -- 11,000 words
  • Four book reviews
    • One on Fimi and Higgins (eds), A Secret Vice, 1500 words
    • One on Edmund Gordon's The Invention of Angela Carter, 1500 words
    • One on Jad Smith's Alfred Bester, 1500 words
    • One on Jamie Williamson's The Evolution of Modern Fantasy -- 1,000 words.
  • One conference paper on Glen Cook, 1500 words
Sum total: 60,000 words. 

Other big time sucks (besides the major last-minute revisions to my dissertation) included editing Scientia et Humanitas and -- oh god -- those god-awful job applications, which constitute a full-time job in themselves. 

One item worthy of note: I managed to write all my dissertation chapters within the single calendar year of 2016. Of course, February and March of 2017 saw me rewriting quite a bit of that, but since I liked my original versions slightly better, I think I can legitimately say that I wrote my dissertation in a single year.

Anyway, now that I'm about to teach full-time, next year's productivity report won't be as glitzy, but I'll keep chugging along anyway. 

The Travails of Traveling

Well, more like "The Travails of Moving," but then that wouldn't alliterate, would it? :)

So, I've done several big moves in my life, and while it's always stressful, I'm generally someone who travels light. No furniture, no big ticket items, just a couple (dozen) boxes of books which I usually sent via USPS and that's it. Marriage, though, has a way of helping you accumulate a whole lotta stuff, so our upcoming move to Arizona is proving trickier than any of my other previous ones.**

The challenge now is that, just yesterday, we nearly almost hired a scam moving company called Region Relocations. Thankfully, my ever diligent wife  Martina, the faithful checker of on-line reviews, checked out them out and saw loads of awful ratings. When I asked their customer rep about them, he hemmed and hawed and finally said, "Well, trust more than Yelp." So I said, "Okay, I'll check that out and call you back." Lo and behold, while they were definitely licensed and had valid insurance (as required by law), about 5 of the red flags listed for problematic movers applied to Region Relocations.

Incidentally, when I got off the phone with the rep, telling him that I'd call him back after checking the government website, he sounded VERY dejected -- like, Eeyore-levels dejected. That's red flag #6, if you're keeping track at home.

On the bright side, we got amazingly cheap plane tickets to Tucson. Apparently nobody is willing to fly to the desert during the hottest month of the year, the wusses.

** And that's saying something. When I moved from Athens, OH to Murfreesboro, TN five years ago, I couldn't move there directly because I spend the two months between the move in England visiting the then-fiancĂ©e. So I had to box everything up, sent half of it to Pennsylvania to reside with the grandparents, and asked a friend to store the other half and send it to me when I finally moved to the Murf. I got pretty lucky that worked out (and pretty lucky I had such a good friend!). I also arrived in the Murf a week before I could move into my apartment, but that's another story.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Joining the Legions of the Gainfully Employed

Okay. So, last Friday was a day of major ups and downs for me. I'll start off with the good news. I've been waiting until I got my official contract before I announced it, but . . . . I GOT A JOB!!!!!  It's a full-time lecturer position at . . . get this . . . the University of friggin' Arizona. I couldn't be more stoked to be joining a state flagship research institution. It's the ideal place for someone like me to land, and the wife and I have been googling the area, the city of Tucson, and the university like crazy since we got confirmation. My initial schedule is also awesome -- four classes, all MWF, and from 12 noon to 4 pm. 

What makes this job even sweeter is that, a month ago, I believed that I had completely struck out on this year's job market -- a whopping 0-90. UA put their job ad up on June 20th (cuz they hadn't had their budget finalized yet, as I later found out), and my interview a few weeks later went really well. The rigorous GTA training program from my doctoral institution really helps. 

Now, we're busily planning how to move cross-country in about 2 weeks time. Making the whole situation even more nail-biting is that our lease is up at the end of this month -- we hadn't been able to make ANY future plans until the whole job situation was settled. As it is, because of arcane leasing rules, we'll have to rent out our apartment 1-month past the lease (for August) while we're also paying rent for the place in Arizona. No help for it, though -- just one of the casualties of taking a cross-country academic job one month prior to the semester.

Last Friday, though, also had some bad news. My grandfather, James Wilson, passed away. He was the best man I ever knew, and he and my grandmother are the only reasons I was able to attend graduate school. I flew up to PA on Sunday, had the viewing Monday, and the funeral today. Both my brother and I offered eulogies. My great regret is that I couldn't tell him the good news I'd learned just that morning. He will be greatly missed.

Those crazy leftist professors and their Nobel-winning economists

So, yeah, the Wall Street Journal is crazy, but this article caught my eye. The gist is that not all "radical leftists" (aka, college professors) are "crazy." The reference is to center-left criticisms of a Duke professor touting a conspiracy theory about a Nobel-prize winning economist James Buchanan. At least the article writer makes it sound like a conspiracy theory -- this could simply be a normal academic discussion about a particular work, which strikes me as much more likely than a so-called conspiracy theory.

Anyway, what's especially interesting about this is James Buchanan. I've heard the name, but only because he's one of my graduate university's most favored sons -- he got his undergrad from Middle Tennessee State, and we have a nifty plaque of him on-campus. (It's about 1/50th the size of the status of the football coach for our completely unknown football program, though!)