Several Years On

I have several posts a’workin’ reader, on such topics dear to this space as dance and books. But, I had to drop them to write a piece on How I Feel Now more than two years after starting this blog. Now that life has taken an alt-ac shape, and even something of a post-ac one.

I was inspired to write this by read posts of one of my favorite post-ac writers, Walking Ledges. He wrote a post a few days ago about how good it feels to sign a contract (for teaching) and know that the search is no more. (See it here.) That he no longer has to run around and get used to new things, virtually every year.

Yes. One of the most difficult parts of transitioning from graduate school is the search and the uncertainty.

My life includes a bit of teaching also. But as time transitioning out of graduate school has gone on, I’ve realized how nice the life of a freelance writer can be. Now, this is not really new news. If you count this blog, I’ve been writing for more than two years.

But a robust freelance career does not spring full blown from the head of Zeus. It’s taken me more than a year to fully transition to the point where I have good clients, interesting work and enough dinero to pay the bills.

I think what I want to write about, though, is the fact that I HAVE DONE IT. I’m successful! I’m happy! I’m been so focused on the push that it’s only been in the last few months that I’ve realized I slowly did climb the mountain. At least part of a mountain. I’m here where I can see the valley!

mountains and valleyI sometimes use the “climb the mountain not straight up but with switchbacks” analogy with students. That is, do something (in their case, study) steadily and methodically rather than trying to cram it in at the last minute, and eventually, as in the case of hiking with switch-backs, you’ll achieve a good altitude without muscle strain or broken bones.

Here’s what I really love about the life of a writer. I do what I want when I want. I have flexibility — as much flexibility as I used to have studying and teaching.

I used to spend research summers reading and writing in shorts and a t-shirt with the fan blowing. I loved it. When I realized how tight the academic job market really was, I had many thoughts. But chief among them was: I can’t stand to lose my research summers.

And I feel that I haven’t.

I think the whole short-and-t-shirt-with-fan is a beatific vision of being present in the mind, actually, and not having to be present in (to cite one alternative) a 9 to 5 office. It’s not that you can’t be present in the mind there, but present in the mind is (in my experience) rarely the focus. Present for a set of tasks and a social world that is sometimes Kabuki-esque. So my dream scenario, which I have now made the real scenario, combines present in the mind and comfortable in the body.

Can’t be beat, right?

It isn’t that there aren’t still things I want. I need some boost in income. I love working in archives, so I’ll be looking for a way to work that into the writing life. I’ll keep up this blog as a think space.

But life is good. Alt-ac’ers and post-ac’ers out there, light is at the end of the tunnel. Keep a’traveling on.

Why Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23 Is Like The Hunger Games

I don’t keep up with television, and, frankly, only watch many television shows when they make it to Netflix—which I do watch. Recently, I saw one that relates so much to the current moment—including presidential politics—that I had to write about it.

I recently watched the first several episodes of a show that aired several years ago entitled Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23.b apt 23

Reader, it seemed to me like The Hunger Games of television. The latter, both book and movies, are something of a parable about competition’s role in times of economic and social uncertainty. Young people are loosed to kill each other in a series of bread and circuses televised for everyone’s enjoyment. That’s the game.

hunger gamesThe premise of Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23 is simple. A young Midwestern woman, June, comes to New York City dewy-eyed, with a great job in finance, a great medical student fiancé, and a company-paid place to live. All economic and social issues firing happily on all gears, in other words. Love and work, and a nice cushion.

She no sooner arrives in the city than she finds the company—which paid for her move, her apartment, and will pay her salary—has had its assets frozen for CEO fraud. When she walks in her first day, law enforcement officials are cleaning the place out. Needless to say, that means company-sponsored apartment is moot. She is desperate to find a place to live in a highly expensive city.

So, she becomes prey. Now, this is a comedy, mind you. But, after finding a number of predatory/weird situations, they comes upon a more urban young woman, Chloe, who needs a roommate. Our Midwestern woman is ecstatic.

However, viewers know that Chloe has a scheme. She takes the deposits and first month’s rent, and then drives the roommate out by her behavior. In the meantime, she’s a scam artist, with a number of grifter-like techniques to obtain food and clothes.

Then, Chloe sleeps with the fiancé, thereby helping to unmask him as a major philanderer.

June’s engagement is broken, she retaliates against Chloe by behaving outrageously as well. In the end, sitcom style, they have become friends.

Which is just as well, because June doesn’t have any place to fall back on. Her parents, seen on Skype, tell her that, to pay for her MBA tuition, they have skipped their mortgage payments.

Oh! And she takes an unpaid internship which she loses to a woman with a tipped uterus. The boss likes that she can never have kids. She starts working in the local independent coffee shop.

I know this is a long synopsis, reader. It’s long for a reason.

The plot coordinates have to line up to let us see how starkly this is a parable about predatory behavior in the age before Bernie Sanders put on the table a discussion of how predatory the environment looks to young people. Actually, a lot of people, young or not.

Now, what happens is that Chloe is still predatory—she makes a living scamming people in various ways—but the two women bond. Significantly, June pays her back in kind by stealing all her furniture and holding it (with the help of one of Chloe’s ex-roommates) until she gets her money back.

So, if we go with The Hunger Games as metaphor, June learns not to be just nice sunny smart person with a plan, but someone who retaliates in kind. She is a strategist with buoyant optimism when we meet her. She has to learn to become a warrior.

More centrally, however, the fact that Chloe uncovers June’s boyfriend as a no-goodnik bonds them. They become friends.

Oh, let me add one other detail. June’s would-be mentor at her job is, of course, downsized when the firm closes. He ends up as a coffee shop manager. June needs a job. He hires her, saying words to the effect of, “oh, I fired someone for absolutely no reason to make room for one of my friends.”

I find this very grim. In the moral universe of the show, predatory behavior, stealing and dishonesty are all ok. They are a kind of lingua franca, actually. People bond by doing them, and then move on to friendship. But it means that the bedrock is untrustworthiness.

There’s a whole part of academia that examines the philosophical meanings of television shows. There is, for example, a book called The Big Bang Theory and Philosophy.

friends_hContrast this with the universe of Friends, a similar “people come to New York and hang in apartments and coffee shops” kind of show. In the Friends moral universe, they actually are friends—supportive. it’s important to have a social network that is not dependent on economic need. Economic need is hardly ever mentioned. (They are never in danger of being the baristas at Central Perk.) It’s the product of a good economic time.

It disturbs me that the predatory moral universe of Apartment 23 is played for laughs. And I hope Bernie Sanders and his campaign—president or not, elected or not—changes the cultural climate in which it took place.

 

 

I Love School; or, the Bird Has Not Flown

As part of my transition out of graduate school, I’ve been working occasionally for a test prep company. Last weekend, I met my class in a local high school. It was a great autumn day–literally, there was a bright golden haze on the meadow.

I’m not in high schools when I teach, usually, so I was kind of shocked by it. And moved. And here’s the reason why.

It was an English classroom, obviously—I could tell by the posters on the wall. George Orwell. Virginia Woolf. Shakespeare, sitting and holding a quill. (And an oddly technicolor rendition of the Globe, his theater.)

The shock and the emotion emanated from the same place, I think. So often, discussions about education and the younger generation assume a kind of “everything is different now” stance. You know, the young have Facebook. They are digital natives. They face enormous challenges—environmental catastrophes, rogue states, a refugee situation that may remake the face of the globe. And that’s just for starters.

But not everything is different now. There was hardly a single thing in that room that wouldn’t have been there when I was a student. (And I’m midlife, remember, so we are talking decades.) It was startlingly the same. Steinbeck. A poster about Of Mice and Men. (Yep, the very one I’m picturing here!) Tennessee Williams. of mice and menAdvice from Winston Churchill on prepositions: “ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.” Dickens. London buses, double decker.

Even the few differences echoed the situation when I was a student. There was a colorful poster of the Khmer Empire. (We worried about Vietnam.) The teacher’s painstakingly annotated copy of Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying was on the desk. (We carried around his Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.)

Yes, yes, I know that knowledge is culturally constructed and this cannot be said to mean that the experiences of reading and writing in an English classroom is timeless. (Although I have to confess that it felt that way.) But I did feel I was in a great and good place—where emotions are discussed, thought is encouraged, and empathy holds sway.

Also, it illustrates how much we embrace the shock of the new concept to our detriment. It’s a commonly used frame that often just doesn’t get it right. What we often have is the commonality of the old.

American (Food) Revolution: Final Installment

Several weeks ago, I wrote a couple of posts on the history of vegetarian cooking in the U.S. over the past several decades. My posts were mostly centered around the idea that vegetarian cooking out of the 1970s (The Moosewood Cookbook) was not archaic and old-fashioned (as a magazine article I cited had it), but in fact were the progenitors of the revolution that put vegetables at the center of a meal (on one end of the spectrum) and resulted in more emphasis on vegetables than had ever been seen before in U.S. cooking (on the other end).

Then, I had a very wild couple of weeks and had to set the posts aside for a while.

But now I’m back, and I want to wrap up those posts by talking about what I think the attempt to date the vegetable food revolution to the restaurant Greens rather than Moosewood means for this cultural moment.

I kind of alluded to it in my second post. Greens is a very upscale restaurant, and to date the revolution there subtly shifts the general “more vegetables, more often, and more creatively done” movement of the past several decades to groups that are economically upscale rather than the population at large.

It shifts ownership and provenance, as it were, to the wealthy from the funky and the creative. In that, it tracks very closely to other phenomena of the past several decades that have increasingly resulted in a wider and wider split between rich and poor, or even very rich and very medium. And that’s too bad.

Yes, I know all the objections that can be raised to this view. I could itemize them myself. First, Greens is affordable for the middle class and I’ve characterized it as a home of the rich. Second—and broader—the American Food Revolution Vegetable Style was always pretty much about the upscale. At the very least, this argument might run, it came out of the educated classes as exemplified in the Moosewood Café of Ithaca, NY, home to a major university (Cornell). As such, it was arguably populated by the upwardly mobile and striving.

I still think there is a world of difference. Yes, any middle class person can spring for a meal at Greens. And yes, Moosewood and its ilk were pretty much all aimed toward the educated classes. But Moosewood and its kind were accessible, and they were importantly accessible. The cooking they espoused was creative, cheap, and theoretically open to anyone wanting to learn it. As a movement, it employed creators, learners and beginners. Greens as paradigm, in contrast, is about chefs and foodies already established as leaders and their further mega-establishment in expensive real estate. Accessibility as a foundational tenet it has not.

Greens also shows the influence more of Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse, founded in Berkeley around chez panissethis time, and dedicated to a more sophisticated palate. Chez Panisse was, initially, also a place for creators and beginners, and struck something of a new way in American cookery at the time. But again, it was not the vegetable revolution that The Moosewood Cookbook was; it simply upped the sophistication of the food. In this, it is arguably more akin to Julia Child’s work in making French cooking more accessible to middle- and upper-class Americans than to either Moosewood or Greens.

If I were writing a history of U.S. cookery since the 1960s, arguably all three of these restaurants, and Julia as a celebrated cook, worked to make different forms of cooking available to Americans. But Greens and Chez Panisse are at home in upscale real estate, and Julia Child arguably made French cooking more accessible than it had been, but never fully part of the average American home. It seems to me that only Moosewood and its kind offered an accessible and flexible form of cooking that was notably democratic. And I salute it for that. And for the vegetables.

 

Language Fun, Canadian Style

Greetings, readers! I had a very wild June and it’s so good to be back in this blog, conversing as I will.

Today, I’m just going to focus on things I find very cool about language. As readers of this blog know, I am very fond of mystery novels, never more so than in the summer. My text is a mystery novel, Old City Hall, by the Canadian writer Robert Rotenberg. (Part of the great NPR “Crime in the City” series.)

Perhaps I should say things he finds very cool, because a character in this novel (a lawyer named Albert Fernandez) is the occasion for extremely interesting observations made about the English language. Fernandez is from South America, emigrated as a child to Toronto, and though outwardly fluent, has worked very hard to not let his struggles with English show. As a kid, falling into a Canadian snowbank, he shouted “aid me” to the other students. And was mercilessly teased by those same kids, for not knowing the proper idiomatic form of “help me.”

So here is Albert, musing about the English language by recalling a college linguistics lecture: “the professor…drew a line down the middle of the blackboard, and wrote…’Anglo-Saxon’ on one side and ‘Norman’ on the other.’” Words with the same meaning face each other across the divide: “go in/enter; meet/rendezvous.” The pairing that previously gave him trouble, “help/aid,” is accounted for: “Thanks to the French invasion of England in 1066, the two main [contributors to the current language] ran parallel throughout.”

Then Albert Fernandez muses on English political speeches: “That’s where Churchill came in…Churchill understood the power of the simple Anglo-Saxon words. He preferred them to the flowery, foreign Norman words. His most famous speech, ‘We will fight them on the beaches…,’ was the greatest example. Every word was Anglo-Saxon, except for the very last one: ‘…and we will never surrender.’ ‘Surrender,’ the only three-syllable word in the whole speech, was a flowery French word instead of the simpler, Anglo-Saxon ‘give up.’ In this way, Churchill underscored how the very idea of surrender was a foreign concept to his British audience.”

Ok, I’ve quoted at some length here. Why? Well, first, this passage exemplifies the kind of close reading that makes study of English so much fun—and so meaningful. It’s what students and teachers in English departments get to do, and this is a very nice example (and done by lawyers, which just underscores how important language is to understanding and analysis). Albert applies this to his experience in courts, observing that a client’s tone changed in a way that caused Albert to believe he was lying; only later, when he reads the transcript and begins to circle the Norman words, does he begin to understand why. When the accused uses Anglo-Saxon words (“I walked into the kitchen”) he is telling the truth; the shift occurs when he begins using Norman words instead (“to the best of my recollection”; “she maneuvered”).

The other pleasure of this is that it’s a clever commentary on the background of the book itself. The maple leaf flagnovel is set in a profoundly multicultural Canada, with a backdrop of many languages, but of course the two official are English and French. Highlighting English and Norman this way implicitly makes a plea that Canada, not Britain or the U.S., is the inheritor and paradigm of the polyglot tongues that underlie contemporary English. (I know the quoted passage about the accused is kind of a swipe at French. Still, the hero of the series—a detective named Ari Greene—drives around listening to the French language stations on his car radio. So there is that.)

And here’s a fun fact I’ve never been able to work in anywhere else: since I referred to the Norman invasion earlier, at least there’s an opening. Early in graduate school, I had to buy The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. To draw a distinction between it and British histories written to assume a proto-empire and English triumphalism already apparent in the medieval period, the introduction implies that the England of this time was more colonized (earlier, by the Danes; by the French) and multivocal than earlier understood. Guess what the last numbered page is? 1066. No accident, think I. A wonderful example, I’ve always thought, of using the physicality of the book to comment on its contents.

Another fun fact:  the picture here is from a great post on the early designs for Canada’s Maple Leaf flag. Click on the link here to read.

And happy July!

To Boldly Go

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the interrelationship between The Big Bang Theory and Star Trek, saying that the linkages were not only about the references of the former to the latter, but about the structure itself. Today, I want to say a bit more about that.

Ok, you say, I’ll buy that the characters have similarities, but what about the plots? Well, I think the plots too.

In the original Star Trek, the Starship Enterprise was dedicated to seeking out new worlds and boldly going where no man had gone before. To that end, it visited alien planet upon alien planet.

Well, in The Big Bang Theory, the new worlds (for the original three guys) are women, sex, and the larger worlds of relationships. When the series begins, they don’t know much about the first, they haven’t had much of the second, and, because of this, they inhabit a relatively small portion of the third. (They had sociability and relationships with each other from the beginning, of course, but almost none with the non-geek world.) In fact, the third episode shows Leonard being extremely anxious about asking his neighbor Penny out—so nervous and awkward that he sweats profusely, throws up, and finally injures himself to the point of bleeding.

In this new voyage, though, Leonard is the leader. At the beginning, Sheldon doesn’t seem interested in any relationships, it is hinted that Howard has pursued women inappropriately, and Raj has selective mutism, where he can’t talk to women—or even when they are around—at all.

Throughout the entire run of the series, each character has followed Leonard into moving into the larger realm of sociability and relationships; now most have stable relationships. These are their new worlds.bbt all cast

Indeed, a number of episodes present their fascination with science fiction as being about their initial social awkwardness and timidity. Penny even tells a possible competitor that it is about keeping their shields up.

In the plot coordinates of the show, where geek-ness provides the grounds for the guys’ sociability and relationships, Penny—who is at ease with dating and sex, and whose relationships are formed by her friendliness and her prettiness—is something of an alien. The humor is that her friendliness could be one of the elements that mark her as an average American type—but in the world of the show, she’s anything but.

I have to say that it is one of the charms of the show, to me, that in a culture that often assumes that relationships and sexuality for single people are a given, with its corollaries that people who don’t have them are charmless and beyond social redemption, in this show none of that is true. In that sense, it continues the Star Trek tradition of generous inclusivity.

 

Farewell, Mr. Spock; Hello, Big Bang Theory

The recent death of Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock on the original TV airing of Star Trek (and its multiple spin-offs), has caused me to revisit his appearances on a contemporary TV show, The Big Bang Theory. Well, not appearances, exactly—the actor himself never shows up. But the science guys on The Big Bang Theory all love Star Trek—references to it abound, and in several memorable sequences, the voice and presence of Spock are evoked. In the first, Spock serves as the conscience of Sheldon, the ur-nerd whose rigid beliefs and schedule are thought to be close to high-functioning autism, when Sheldon wants to substitute his roommate Leonard’s toy Star Trek transformer for his own (broken) one. Part of the fun of this is that Leonard Nimoy voices Spock just as he did in the original (see clip below). In the second, their neighbor Penny gives Sheldon a napkin Nimoy had signed.


So it’s clear that Star Trek is an obvious and unmistakable presence in The Big Bang Theory. But what might not be as clear is that The Big Bang Theory owes its very structure to Star Trek. I was influenced in this perception by reading about how Pride and Prejudice has influenced many contemporary stories—the teen fave Twilight among them. The unattainable and even slightly dislikable guy who might be the one true love is common to both of them.

So, let us think about how much the characters of Star Trek underlies The Big Bang Theory. First, as the clip illustrates, Sheldon kind of is Spock. He sees himself as ruled by logic; he is (due to his rigidity and a kind of a-sociability) somewhat alien—as Spock says, they are alike in being half human.

Once you see Sheldon as Spock, all the other character fall into place as Star Trek types. Leonard is Captain Kirk in being the leader of the group—and more human than Leonard. Howard, seen through the prism of his early dislike of Sheldon, is Spock’s opposite, Bones McCoy, the Starship Enterprise’s doctor, whose emotional responses were the foil for Spock’s logic. (The original triumvirate represented all heart [McCoy] and all head [Spock], with Kirk combining both.) Howard’s outbursts about Sheldon’s rigid precepts and beliefs have the same “do you have ice water in your veins, man” quality that Bones’s outbursts against the half-Vulcan Spock’s commitment to logic and inability to feel human emotions have.

And Raj? Well, I think Raj evokes the inclusiveness and multicultural nature of the original Star Trek. Star Trek crewJust as Spock indicated that an alien group—the Vulcans—were appreciated and respected, the other crew members indicated that in the future, all nations and all ethnic groups were working together in a high-minded, intellectual mission. Differences were no longer an issue; they all worked together as a matter of course. As the series went on, nearly all the crew members were multinational or multicultural—Sulu was Asian, Uhuru was African-American, Scotty was Scottish, Chekhov was Russian. Raj’s Indian-ness (and his sister in England and parents in India) is illustrative of the multinational reach of the high-minded intellectual mission of contemporary science. (And, since he is also a sci-fi geek, of the reach of that aspect of popular culture.)  Without Raj, this is a program about 3 white guy nerds in SoCal.  With Raj, they are the world.

The series also has fun with mixing and matching certain qualities of the characters—often reversing Big bang theory guysthem. The original Bones had a marked southern accent and a fondness for whiskey. In The Big Bang Theory, it’s Sheldon who is a Southerner, whose Texas accent comes out on occasion, and his father was an alcoholic. Although Spock is Vulcan, Leonard Nimoy was vocal about the influence of his Jewish upbringing on the character. (The “Live Long and Prosper” Vulcan salute was inspired by a similar gesture in the temple of his childhood.) In The Big Bang Theory, it is Howard who is Jewish.

Coming up: the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.

A Stepford Too Far

Hi, readers!  Today’s post is occasioned by something seen in the grocery store checkout line.  Namely, before and after pictures of Renée Zellweger.

The ones I saw were in Us Weekly, but similar juxtapositions have been all over the media, since, apparently, she was nearly unrecognizable at a fashion preview a month or so ago.

renee-zellweger-2014-split-horizontal-gallery

I find the change really chilling on several levels.

First, although her face clearly looks quite different than it did before, she is apparently maintaining that the differences are due solely to health-related diet and exercise changes.

I’ve always liked her persona in films as she (often) plays women with humor, sass, and common sense. Having plastic surgery to this degree is a dreadful negation of these things, and trying to erase the effects by a not very convincing story is even more so.

Second, if Zellweger had plastic surgery to hide the effects of age (she’s 45) that in itself is a sad commentary on ageism in contemporary society. Indeed, the New York Times devoted a recent “Room for Debate” to her recent plastic surgery as a example of prejudice against age. (It can be read here. “Room for Debate” is a recurring feature in which 5 to 6 commentators opine on a subject of contemporary interest.)

But an even sadder commentary is the fact that her original looks were completely sandblasted away. The plastic surgery is not obvious just because—or even primarily because—she suddenly looks younger; it’s obvious because she suddenly looks profoundly different.

Isn’t it possible that age was secondary, and a misguided attempt at looking some criterion of “better” the primary reason? Renée Zellweger has always been nice looking, but someone to whom the adjective “cute” or “attractive” would likely be applied, rather than “beautiful.”

It’s equally dreadful if a woman with perfectly acceptable looks comes to feel that they are not acceptable unless they adhere to an extremely narrow spectrum, and I’m almost more afraid of that than the aging motive. (I want also to say that we don’t know, obviously, unless she advances her reasons, but we can speculate about the culture pressures.)

The whole thing reminds me of Scott Westerfeld’s young adult novel Pretty, a science fiction tale in which every member of society, at 16, undergoes plastic surgery to be (as you might guess from the title!), pretty, beautiful, with perfectly symmetrical features. Westerfeld is a master at crafting his dystopian fiction to be only a few turns different than the contemporary world. After their surgery, for example, young people congregate in New Pretty Town. Parents are “middle pretties” and the generation before them are “old pretties.” One can easily imagine an actress thinking she is an “old pretty” who needs to be rejuvenated.

But, if I really get my meta on, I have to say it also reminds me of Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra. Let me quote the introduction to Baudrillard in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism: “simulacra seem to have referents (real phenomena they refer to), but they are merely pretend representations that mark the absence, not the existence, of the objects they purport to represent.” An example Baudrillard himself gives is Disneyland–indeed, it is the example most frequently given in the explication of his work. Frontierland and pirates in Disneyland are fantasies, not the real thing or even images of the real thing (as photographs, for example, would be). Unfortunately, Renée Zellweger’s face is now an example of simulcra as well.

Happy National Novel Writing Month!

Today, I’m going to celebrate the opening of a new month by writing about a cultural phenomenon that takes place within it: National Novel Writing Month, or, as the shortened form is known to cognoscenti, NaNoWrMo.

National Novel Writing Month is a challenge to write 50,000 words on a novel either by yourself, in concert with the Web site dedicated to it, or in tandem with writing buddies. Hundreds of people worldwide participate in it. While the statement on the Web site talks about 50,000 words, you can really set any goal for yourself. The point is to generate words every day for the entire month.  Chinese lantern pictures

And then pat yourself on the back at the end! And publish, revise, or whatever your heart desires.

I’m going to link this to elements in my graduate study, as I love to do. One of the first courses I took talked about the distinction between modern clock time and the festivalization of time that preceded modernity. Modernity is (among other things) about the institution of clock time: a standardized, regimented span of days, continually beginning and ending at designated times. Older eras were defined by feast days, festivals, and so forth. One of my professors argued that, in the contemporary world, widely celebrated holidays (think Thanksgiving, also coming up this month) were one of the few retentions of festival time (a continually replenishing, continually consumed table over the years, containing ritual elements).

Interestingly enough, it can be argued that the academic year also contains elements in common with festival time (very broadly defined, of course). Why? Well, rather than being a series of standardized days of roughly equal length, semesters have periods of waxing and waning, bookended with time that is celebrated as (first) a beginning (think welcomes and invocations) and (second) as ends (think holiday parties and breaks, which are unregimented time).

You can see the components of “festivalization” most clearly, I think, by comparing the waxing, waning, and punctuation of beginning and ends with corporate life. In the latter, one may have a vacation or holiday time off, but it is not celebrated as a beginning or end (certainly not in common), and while there may be busy periods or slow, it is not felt as a waxing in the way that the semester goes uphill, uphill, and then down (final grading!).

Well, I’m going to add NaNoWrMo to contemporary iterations of festival time. First, it has a specific time dedicated to it in which a huge community out there celebrates. It is kicked off with a celebration (there are write-ins that begin on October 31 and kick off as the chimes of midnight herald the month of November). There are numerous mini-celebrations within it (you can get badges and prizes for writing a certain number of words). There are communal write-ins throughout the month, including all-night events. (Talk about unregimented!)

And I think it is no accident that this custom happens during the bleakest month of the year. (I know many people would nominate December for this honor. Not me. Whereas the daylight in December increases after the 21st, the daylight in November only goes downhill.) It’s a shared ritual of harboring the light within, I think, and making sure that you are producing a kind of internal, creative warmth. I find it very encouraging to be part of such a team on these cold and dark mornings. So, all hail, NaNoWrMo!

Independent Day

In my pursuit of alt-ac-hood, I am a great fan of Versatile PhD, a web site devoted to forums and information for those transitioning out of the tenure track as a goal. The other day, someone posted a comment on one of its open forums to the effect that they were dissed when registering for a conference as an independent scholar.

The person querying had published a book, and had been invited to talk at the conference because of it. (She also works at a nonprofit, but that position apparently isn’t related to the research done for the book.) In other words, you would think she had a position inviting respect. Instead, she was told that her specific affiliation for the conference—independent scholar—was a euphemism. She wanted suggestions, from the Versatile PhD’ers, about how she could respond graciously.

Euphemism for what, it didn’t say. (Party-crasher? Suppliant? Poseur? Mystery Guest?) First of all, it isn’t a euphemism if you’ve actually published your research, it seems to me.

Second, as it happens, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recently gave one of their awards to an independent scholar, Pamela O. Long. (The MacArthur awards are frequently referred to in the media as “genius” grants; awardees this year include a generous helping of academics and artists.) Ms. Long is 71 and has worked as a successful independent historian most of her life. Read more of her story here.

The whole issue of independent scholarship is a very vexed one for alt-ac’s and post-ac’s just because of this prejudice. It’s part of a larger set of practices that devalue any work that is not specifically linked to an institution of higher education and even within that, to work as a tenure track appointee within a department. That this is happening even as more and more people flee the tenure track or abandon it prior to obtaining it due to either the paucity of positions or the almost complete lack of free time for a fledgling academic (and as entire conferences are devoted to the alt-ac world, such as the recent one at Penn State) is increasingly frustrating. There are a scant number of openings in the current job lists, measured against multiple hundreds of applicants.

It seems to me that one solution is simply to be more inclusive about what constitutes thought and research. Some of this takes place in institutions; some of it takes place in conjunction with both institutions and private studies (past recipients of the MacArthur have included people like Anna Deavere Smith and Junot Diaz, who have university appointments but are better known for their artistic activities), and some takes place in private studies. The pudding—Pamela Long has a number of books to her credit—should be the proof.

Part of my own transition out of academia has included believing that perhaps there are a number of good models, not just one.

I’m happy to report that Pamela Long has written an informative and generous article on being an independent scholar that foregrounds the idea of the work being central and also provides an intriguing parallel with the lives of artists. To quote: “there are plenty of us out here, so it seems reasonable that we should claim some cultural space….it would be good for our profession to move a bit closer to this [by artists] focus on the work as opposed to the position.” I’ve only known about this essay for a couple weeks (since the MacArthur announcements were made), but I really think this should be required reading for alt-ac and post-ac folk. The whole thing can be found here.