Crossing over, part III: The uses and limits of literary models


Mary with Laura holding Susan. Illustration by Garth Williams, Little House in the Big Woods, 1932

Today’s post is an unanticipated part III in my series Crossing Over, on writing and publishing an academic book that aims to be a “crossover” title with a popular audience.  Part I can be found here, “What is my book about?”, and Part II here, “Will I ever publish this book?”  Many thanks to those of you in the comments on those posts who encouraged me to write a Part III.  I hope to hear from the rest of you as to the writers and titles you see as your historical and literary models.

One of the challenges in writing The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) was the fact that her life is very eventful early in childhood and adolescence, and then again in old age–a reversal of most biographies, which tend to focus on the adult years of a subject’s life, and offer only scant attention to their youths and their decline in old age.  But while her childhood was very eventful–taken captive at age 7, brought to New France at age 12, and announced her intention to become a nun at age 14–most of it before she enters the Ursuline convent as a student at age 12 is only very lightly documented.

How does one write the history of an eighteenth-century childhood, especially one almost entirely undocumented?  Although I was powerfully influenced by the historians I’ve been reading all my professional life, especially those who have focused on telling the story of a single life, I saw this as more of a literary problem than a historical one.  That is, I knew what I could do as a historian–I just didn’t know how I could bring it all together.  Or, as I wrote in part I of the Crossing Over series a few weeks ago: Continue reading

What are the rules for writing good history? An Independence Day weekend provocation.

rossflagThis morning on the Twitter, my fellow Coloradoan Paul Harvey directed me to an article at The Atlantic by a young whippersnapper, Michael Conway, who was himself a student in an Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History course in 2008-09. He writes about “The Problem with History Classes,” by which he seems to mean “The Problem with High School History Classes,” and rehearses the argument that it’s important to show students that history is not in fact a linear narrative of consensual facts but rather aggressively contested ground on which historians and students disagree, sometimes loudly and rancorously.  Yes indeed!  Although history itself is sometimes a bitterly contested ground, I’d be hard pressed to find an AP-USH teacher or a Ph.D.-holding scholar of U.S. history who would disagree with this point.

Conway then says that no one shared the contested nature of historical inquiry with him until he went to college, which surprised me because he took AP-USH, and I thought the point of that was introducing students to college-level ideas and analysis.  He writes:

When I took AP U.S. History, I jumbled these diverse histories into one indistinct narrative. Although the test involved open-ended essay questions, I was taught that graders were looking for a firm thesis—forcing students to adopt a side. The AP test also, unsurprisingly, rewards students who cite a wealth of supporting details. By the time I took the test in 2009, I was a master at “checking boxes,” weighing political factors equally against those involving socioeconomics and ensuring that previously neglected populations like women and ethnic minorities received their due. I did not know that I was pulling ideas from different historiographical traditions. I still subscribed to the idea of a prevailing national narrative and served as an unwitting sponsor of synthesis, oblivious to the academic battles that made such synthesis impossible.  

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Friday round-up: the good and evil edition

Ding a ling a ling!

Ding a ling a ling!

Ask not for whom the dinner bell tolls!  I’m on a tight deadline to crank out an essay before the bell rings, so here are a few long reads to keep you busy while I’m out roping up some historiographical longhorns.  I don’t know why, but all of these links seem to be about good actors struggling to cope with their mixed feelings about the bad behavior of others.  Bookmark this post the next time someone tells you that “secular humanists” and “liberal relativists” refuse to deal with the problem of evil in the world, willya?

  • Clemson Communications Professor Chenjerai Kumanyika writes at the NPR Code Switch blog about “The Cost of White Comfort,” and nails a sneaking suspicion I’ve had about the (mostly white) chorus of hosannas about the forgiveness shown by the families of the black victims of last week’s terrible massacre in Charleston:  “I couldn’t shake a paralyzing feeling: When black people and white people clasped hands in the arena that night, the comfort wouldn’t be evenly distributed. The healing wouldn’t flow both ways.”  White Americans just love it when we’re let off the hook, don’t we?  We’re the kings and queens of the fantasy that history doesn’t matter.
  • Writer Andrew Chee dishes on his time in the early 1990s working as a cater-waiter for William F. and Pat Buckley:  “The tuxedo and the starched white shirt—and the fact that each assignment was at a different, often exclusive, place—all made me feel a little like James Bond. Sometimes my fellow waiters and I called it the Gay Peace Corps for how we could come into places, clean them up, make them fabulous, throw a party, and leave. And I liked that when I went home, I didn’t think about the work at all.”  But would his recent past as an ACT-UP activist get him kicked out of the famously anti-gay Bill’s household?  Or would it get him an invitation to skinny dip with Bill at the end of the evening?  (Because “that’s how they used to swim at Yale, after all.”)  Really!  For you younger people, this essay really captures a slice of gay, urban life in the 1990s, before and just after the invention of protease inhibitors while rendered HIV a condition people could live with instead of just die from.  I was an urban straight at the time, but Chee and I are the same age and his recollections really jibe with my memories of the time.

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Blooming where you’re planted, flourishing in stony soil, plus Robert Frost



Tom Bredehoft has another post up at Chancery Hill Books about the ways in which not teaching at an R-1 fundamentally shaped his career as a scholar in fruitful ways.  In brief, he writes that building his career at a regional comprehensive university and then adjuncting for a few years at another university made him a more creative and more theoretically inclined scholar than he ever thought he would be as a medieval Old English literature expert:

Between the University of Northern Colorado and West Virginia University, I regularly offered classes in composition, in the English language, in British Literature surveys, and in both contemporary comics and science fiction and fantasy. Only occasionally, in comparison, did I teach courses in Medieval Literature, which was my nominal specialty as a scholar.

But all that teaching—and the reading and thinking it involved—in areas outside of my primary area of specialization, I am starting to think, is actually what helped me to start thinking more usefully about questions that span all of English letters. For me the study of Old English meter and the study of modern graphic narratives grew to be connected somehow. At one level, I ascribed both interests to my recognition that I was a formalist by inclination. At another level, though, it was the kind of question—just what does link Old English verse to comics?—that could only be answered by looking at the truly big picture. In a sense, I needed to become a theorist to understand the question itself, much less begin to answer it. I couldn’t rely on other theorists’ thinking, or build upon it: the questions I was trying to answer were my own.

As much as the breadth of my teaching helped me both to discover some of these questions and to begin to answer them, it is certainly true, too, that my work in selling books has affected the range of things I attend to in my scholarly work: I know much more about the bibliographic details and publication history of works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings from having bought and sold and collected them than I do from having taught them, no matter how often. And both topics make an appearance in my 2014 academic book, The Visible Text.

Perhaps my experience cannot be generalized; I’d be among the first to acknowledge that the way I’ve gone about things in my career may not be for everyone. But it seems odd to me to realize that if I’d had a conventional faculty job at a true research-oriented university, there might have been a far greater match between my scholarly focus and the classes I taught. But the consequence of that greater degree of matching is that I might never have had the tools and experience of books and texts to write a book that considers literature and material textuality from the eighth century to the present. Certainly, as a research faculty member at a research university, I’d have been encouraged (actively or passively) to have a narrower, more defined focus, and the teaching part of my work would have involved fewer courses and fewer sections of them. Part of me thinks that it may well be the case that my work as a teaching faculty member and bookseller might have prepared me to address new theoretical questions better than any other aspect of my training and career.

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Real stories from the Post-ac/Alt-ac world: “You Must Change Your Life”

cowgirlbeerIt’s been too long, friends!  What can I say, except that my last six weeks on sabbatical are chock-full of visitors, travel, and reunions, which have left me little time to live in the virtual world.  I’m back online now, though, and have an idee or two to share.

First, I should say that I’m a great believer in the power of personal narrative.  When I was younger, letter- and journal writing helped me make sense of the trials and errors of youth.  When I was older, blogging at served the same purpose as I wrote about some of my early professional challenges and created a space in which others could find a supportive audience and share strategies for dealing with abusive colleagues and the insanely competitive academic job market.

Around the same time, I started writing a biography of a woman in my period of study, so clearly I’m committed to individual narratives as both a storytelling device and as pedagogy:  we learn so much from reading about other lives.  They can offer us encouragement, cautionary tales, and perhaps most importantly, help us imagine other lives and different ways of living.  There is a real creativity crisis among us professors who want to offer our students ideas for career alternatives to academia (alt-ac) or post-academia (post-ac) careers.  Professors are the worst people to ask, because we took the conservative path and remained in academia!  But we can seek out stories that may give us and our students new ideas for alternative ways of making a living and living a satisfying life.  (Because trust me:  academia is not necessarily a path to either goal, let alone both!)

An old friend of mine who used to live in my hometown of Potterville, Colorado, the distinguished medieval English literature scholar Thomas Bredehoft, has started blogging about his decision to leave a tenured full professorship and his new life as an entrepreneur.  Tom was a full professor who took a position off the tenure track as a spousal accommodation, when his wife took a tenure-track position at a university in another part of the country.  After teaching off the tenure track for five years, he left traditional academia in 2012 to pursue his own alt-ac business in the rare book and antique trade.  As he continues with his academic writing, Tom wants to use his blog to consider the academic, alt-ac, and post-ac worlds, from the perspective of someone who has spent most of a career thinking about books and poetry. Continue reading

Why do so many people resent Trigger warnings?


Roy Rogers and Trigger

Friends, you’re going to have to explain something to this cowgirl:  I just can’t understand all of the irritation and resentment aimed at Trigger!  (What did this poor horse ever do to Peggy Noonan, anyway?)  From everything I’ve seen, he was a born showman, a high-stepping son-of-a-gun who never did anything worse than steal the show from his owner, Roy Rogers.  Trigger never bit or kicked anyone who didn’t deserve it, now, did he?

But let’s face it:  horses are really big animals, and some people are a little trepidatious around them.  Some horses are afraid of people, and can startle or jump when they’re spooked.  Just because some folks are a little fearful of horses, and just because some horses are easily spooked doesn’t make them bad people or bad horses.  It just means that those of us who are comfortable with Trigger should remember that not every person (or horse) feels the same, and keep that in mind when we’re discussing Trigger or bringing him around for company. Continue reading

Z.O.M.G.: I agree with Katie Roiphe entirely.


Why, yes! Yes, I do.

Alert the authorities:  Katie Roiphe is dead right about “Why Professors Should Not Have Affairs with Their Students:”   Longtime readers may recall that I’ve been pretty unsparing in my criticism of Roiphe for a long, long time now, but she really nails it here.

In this new essay, Roiphe writes from the perspective of seeing a number of male colleagues have affairs with their graduate and undergraduate students, and I’ve seen it too among men in the profession–my age and even younger, so it’s not going away anytime soon (although thank the Goddess I’ve never seen it among my colleagues in my department.)  First, it’s an obvious and embarrassing trope:  “The dynamic is so trite one can barely commit it to the page, but it seems that otherwise charismatic, original men are completely happy to inhabit this cliché, to live and work in it. In my experience these are men who would rather die than dress or speak or write in a clichéd way, but in this particular area of triteness, they feel entirely comfortable.”

Also, “the prospect of sleeping with an undergraduate seems a little like wanting to sleep with a puppy,” as in bestiality, not as in chaste and adorable puppy snuggling, which is obvs. perfectly fine.  But who cares if a middle-aged schlub makes a fool of himself?  I don’t, and neither does Roiphe, because of course it’s the damage to students and to the trust in the professor-student relationship that concerns her most: Continue reading