Friday, May 31, 2013

Blogging Like Chaucer

cross-posted from Dagblog

I love academic bloggers. Academic bloggers worry me sick. And the bloggers who keep me up at night are the ones who have adjunct or alt-ac jobs but are trying to move to the tenure track. Some of those people are using blogs and social media to advance their careers in ingenious ways which I would never have foreseen. But others seem, at least from my vantage, to expect or hope that their online work will help their career in specific ways that it will not and cannot. Being online can help an academic career. But it's important to be clear about what it can help and what it can't.

Last week a blogger at Inside Higher Ed, a person who has a prominent and well-established online platform but teaches off the tenure track, wrote a post about her frustrations on the job market and her sense that no amount of professional achievement would be enough to get her a tenure-ladder job. There was a brief kerfuffle, with various unhelpful comments on her original post and one great and insightful response post by John Warner. But the issue I would like to highlight is that what she calls her "rather high-profile blog," a gig writing for Inside Higher Ed two or three times every week, did not tilt the job market in her favor. There, I think is the key lesson. Even blogging from terrific, high-profile platform was not enough.

[A few important caveats here: 1. The IHE blogger's larger point that in this market you can do everything right and still not get a job is absolutely true. There are far more qualified people than there are jobs, and so qualified people go without. Everything else I say should be read with that larger problem in mind. 2. I have no intention of commenting on the IHE blogger's specific case except for the fact that blogging seems not to have served her as a job credential. She's not asking my advice.]

But here's the big takeaway:

You can't blog your way to a tenure-track professorship.You simply can't. Even a gig at IHE or The Chronicle for Higher Education is not enough. That doesn't mean blogging is not professionally useful to you. It means you need to be clear about what it's useful for.

Blogging and other social media serve academics by bringing you to other people's attention and building your professional network. It works largely as publicity for your other work, and it widens your potential audience while strengthening your connections. (I, like many bloggers, mainly do this for non-professional reasons, but this is a fair assessment of blogging's professional benefits. And because academia is a small world, you can get most of those benefits even with a pseudonymous blog.) The most successful academic bloggers I can think of, such as Tenured Radical and Historiann, are productive bloggers who've built up a strong community of readers and commenters on one hand while also maintaining a steady output of strong scholarly writing on the other. Their blogging works as what military types call a "force multiplier" for their other work, making their scholarship more effective by drawing more audience attention to it.

What blogging never does is substitute for other academic writing. It doesn't get counted as scholarship. It does not serve as an employment credential. (If you wish to argue that it should, I can't help you. I'm interested in describing what is, not what ought to be. If you wish to argue that someday your blog will be recognized as cutting-edge scholarship, I would point out that "someday" will be too late.) This distinction doesn't pose a problem to science bloggers, or to most social scientists or historians, where the difference between a journal article and a blog essay is usually self-evident. But it can be tricky for people who work in literature or cultural studies, who can be tempted to blur the distinction between writing scholarship about new media and doing other writing on new media platforms.

Blogging functions for today's academics much the way that poetry functioned for poets like Chaucer or Spenser, which is to say that you can't actually make a living at it but it can help you make connections for other jobs. Chaucer's poetry only served him economically or professionally by building his reputation at court while he looked for various civil-service gigs. Writing The Canterbury Tales was a good way to get a customs or weights-and-measures gig. Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar led him to a career as personal secretary to important noblemen. Making a living off the books themselves was out of the question for both men. Poetry might have been their true vocation, but it wasn't their actual career. It was simply grease for their career. If you are an academic blogger, the same is true of your blog. You write it for personal satisfaction and to express various interests and for the pure joy of making something. The exposure it brings might also help your career. But it won't be the main driver of your career. The exposure only helps if you have other credentials to bring to the table.

Consider, for example, the Chaucer blogger himself, who writes "Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog," and tweets as "LeVostreGC." He's an inventive, sophisticated, and hilarious user of social media who also holds down a junior-professor job as a medievalist. He's even published a selection from his blog as a book. But that book isn't going to be his main source of income. It didn't get him his job, and it won't get him tenure. What is has gotten him is attention from other literary scholars, whom he has impressed and made laugh. (He is very, very funny.) And people in our strange little profession know who he is, sooner than they likely would have otherwise. So being Chaucer the blogger is a bit like being Geoffrey Chaucer the Ricardian poet: it's not a living, but it does help you in your day job.

For an academic, blogging is the writing you do to get attention for your other writing. Blogging, even with my open-secret secret-identity, means that I'm more likely to be on some people's minds, and that they're more likely to come to one of my conference papers, glance at one of my articles if they see my byline, or read a review of my book. And I have professional friendships that are largely kept up through the blog and other social media. Blogging helps to get and keep you on people's radar. It's a good thing to do. But it only serves to assist your other work.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Boston and the End of the War on Terror

cross-posted from Dagblog

Five weeks after a terrorist attack on Boston, President Obama has declared that the War on Terror, "like all wars, must end."  If I had told you a year ago that he would make such a speech a month and a half after a high-profile terrorist attack on a major American city, neither you nor I would have believed me. But the lessons of Boston drive home the wisdom of the President's decision. It showed us that a terrorist attack is meant to be lived through and that Americans are ready to live through one. And it showed us an excellent civilian response to a terrorist attack paired with a decidedly mixed paramilitary response.

The key lesson of the Boston bombings is clear: the best way to prepare for a possible terrorist attack is to build six or eight world-class hospitals in your city. Start in the 19th century if you can.

I'm phrasing that as a joke, but much of Boston's resiliency and quick response was built on the city's superb medical infrastructure. Every victim who was alive when a first responder reached them got to a hospital. Every victim who got to a hospital lived. That is simply remarkable. The city's medical personnel held the death count to the absolute minimum. That does not diminish the senselessness of those three deaths, or the grievous wounds that many survivors suffered. But the city's doctors and nurses prevented a fourth or fifth or sixth senseless death, and I am grateful to them for that.

Some of Boston's success at coping with the attack comes from specific post-September-11 training. Boston's emergency responders had drilled for this scenario, and all of the hospital trauma centers had some doctors who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan and had experience treating the kinds of severely traumatic injuries that they saw on April 15. You can only give the police and EMTs special training after you've built organizations strong enough to carry out the training. First responders did a superb and intelligent job in triaging the wounded, spreading them out between the six nearby trauma centers. But that could only happen because the first responders had the luxury of six top-tier trauma centers within a three-mile radius. There aren't many spots on the planet with that luxury; the attack happened at the heart of a medical epicenter.

And you can't build a Tier One trauma center in any hospital. You need an institution and a staff that can support it. Boston could only dedicate such impressive resources to crisis medicine and emergency response because of the profound depth in the city's overall medical resources. Boston was ready to tend its wounded on that terrible day because Boston works on tending the wounded every day.

Boston's response to the Marathon bombings, its ability to absorb the body blow and respond effectively, was built on its peacetime strengths. It was a victory of the open society. On the other hand, the paramilitary response to the bombing suspects once they were identified, the manhunt and the city-wide lockdown, showed that we've already reached the point of diminishing returns. Getting tougher, giving the police heavier weapons or more military training, is not going to help; we're already at the point where those things are beginning to offset their own benefits.

I certainly can't fault the various police forces engaged in the manhunt for their caution; the bombers had already murdered a police officer, and they'd thrown IEDs at others. They had no choice but to assume that Dzokhar Tsarnaev had a gun and at least one more bomb. But the daylong lockdown, which paralyzed a major urban area and temporarily stopped its economy dead, was at least partly counterproductive. The lockdown itself helped hide Tsarnaev. He was found almost immediately after the lockdown ended, by one of the neighbors who'd been locked down. The militarized search took all the civilian eyes off the street. As soon as those eyes were back, the fugitive was easy to find.

After every attack, there are calls to get "tougher." But there's no tougher to get at this point without undermining ourselves. We're already at the point where the "toughness" is starting to hurt as much as it helps. Sending more cops with more body armor wasn't going to speed up that search. If they'd called in the National Guard, the bomber would probably still be hiding in that boat now.

And that's basically where we are as a country with the larger situation. Bringing more muscle than we've already brought to the War on Terror isn't going to get us better results. In fact, we've hit the point where more muscle and more security restrictions are going to bring us slightly worse results, while continuing to drain our resources.

There have also been calls to "toughen" immigration, because the bombers were immigrants, and there will be a new minor rule change designed to hassle foreign students between terms. That is not going to meaningfully cut back on terrorism, though it will play into the terrorists' argument that we're a country hostile to foreigners.

Of course, the people screaming about tougher immigration rules are ignoring the immigrants who played important positive roles during the Boston events. The terrorists were actually located because the hostage they took in a car-jacking, a Chinese national, was able to escape them and was quick-thinking enough to help the police track the terrorists with his cell phone. I don't see how keeping that guy out of the country would have made things better.

Nor can any reasonable person believe that those world-class hospitals that saved so many victims' lives on the day of the bombing are run by exclusively American-born doctors and medical staff. A world-class research hospital, by its nature, attracts talent from across the world. Some of the people saving lives in those six trauma units were immigrants. I'm pretty glad those people were here.

We're not going to be make our country safer by keeping foreign medical students out of the country. We can only make ourselves a little less safe by doing that, becoming a country with less young medical talent. We're not going to make ourselves safer by making it even more of a hassle to fly; we can only weaken ourselves a little by discouraging foreign talent and foreign business from coming. Closing our society down doesn't make it safer from terrorist attacks. It only weakens our power to weather those attacks.

Terrorism will never go away. It only takes a few disgruntled people willing to murder strangers. And we will always need to invest some resources in stopping terrorism and repairing the damage. But the question is how we allocate those investments. Some anti-terrorism spending goes toward things that have no other use in themselves, such as the x-ray machines in the airport, and that function as a drag on the overall economy, such as making airline travel more difficult and complicated. Frankly, most obvious military and security measures fall into these categories. On the other hand, spending money on things like hospitals improve the country's effective security while improving the general economy. Build excellent hospitals, with some extra money for things like trauma response, and you make the city better while also making it less likely that people in that city are killed by terrorists. Investments that protect us against terrorism and its effects while also strengthening our open society are apure gain. Spending on fortifying the country always involves some dead loss; spending on strengthening the public commons makes us safer while benefiting us in other ways. There will always have to be some straight-up security measures that will function as sheer cost; those costs are hedges against risk. But those measures can never diminish risk to zero, and at a certain point they start to cost far more than they save. On the other hand, money spent on building our country, rather than walling it in, is a secure investment in every sense.

Monday, May 13, 2013

In Praise of the Writing Binge

When I got my first job, I also got a book of advice for new professors. It gave me some sensible-sounding advice about writing. Avoid binge writing, it said. Write at regularly scheduled hours and keep each session brief. Too many graduate students are used to writing in crazy binges, the authors said, rather than developing steady writing habits. Faculty had to learn to write all the time, and also had to learn to STOP writing even if things were going well. And I tried to take that advice seriously. I have always believed in good writing habits and deplored the way graduate school undermines those habits. I drank the no-binge Kool-Aid with a smile, in an appropriately moderate serving. But that advice is fundamentally wrong. If I had kept following it, my career would now be a smoking ruin.

Writing binges are things of wondrous beauty. I can't do without them, and all the work of which I'm most proud was done in flagrant violation of the no-binge rule. Part of that is simply who I am as a writer. I will never be a 45-minute-a-day writer, just as I will never be an early-morning writer no matter how much I would like to be. (I am a nocturnal writer, and that's that. Every attempt to become a virtuous early-bird ends up wasting a morning and leaving me too sleepy to work later when I'm feeling productive.) But more importantly, some things cannot be written at all without some form of binge. You cannot build them out of six hundred brief sessions, any more than you can train for a marathon by running two miles a day. Some pieces of writing demand the writer's full attention in a way that cannot be kept up forever. They require weeks or months of intense focus to complete, after which the writer goes through a rest period, working at a more relaxed pace and paying more attention to tasks that have been put off during the most strenuous writing.

Now, the book that advised me to write in brief, regular sessions could itself have been written in a number of brief, regular sessions. Its structure was simple, its prose was not complicated, and neither really were its ideas. Likewise, those books that tell you how to write your novel in one hour a day could have been written in one hour a day. But you can't actually write a good novel in one hour a day any more than you can drive from Boston to Los Angeles in one hour a day. Doing it that way is not efficient. Neither can you write a book of complicated or original scholarship in nothing but short sessions without losing the thread. To sustain a complicated argument over hundreds of pages requires sustained focus.

Obviously, you cannot write anything so complicated in a single sitting. This part of the no-binge rule makes sense. Procrastinating until the deadline arrives (or passes) and pulling an all-nighter is obviously counter-productive. So is banging out three 25-page term papers over a week and a half, as the semester system requires many graduate students to do. That is not a writer sustaining focus. You need to give a project your attention for the full time it needs. Otherwise, it's like trying to drive from Boston to Los Angeles in a single go without stopping.

I spent six weeks in the middle of this spring semester on a writing binge. It wasn't a frantic graduate-school-style binge, and it couldn't have been. I can't drop everything else and hole up in my study for days. I continued teaching and grading and going to meetings. I continued my weekly multi-state  commute to see my spouse, and continued paying attention to my spouse. I continued cooking the meals. But I arranged things during those six weeks to clear all the time that I could for writing. I set aside that time in large blocks. And I made getting my writing done during those six weeks my priority. There were no deadlines but the ones I set for myself, and the recognition that I could only keep my window of time open for so long. The results were excellent; I completed a few projects that had been almost-but-not-quite finished for seemingly forever, and then finished a monster article that I had been wrestling with for over a year. Working on that article in short, manageable stints had inched along like a glacier, taking a step back for every two steps forward, and every time I was forced to set it aside and deal with something else I would lose the thread. (Of course, spreading out the work on the articles over such a long period ensured that work on it would be interrupted repeatedly, that I would have to work on something else or have a week with almost no writing time.) In fact, the fragmentation of the writing process was damaging the piece, fragmenting its structure as the months went by. But a sustained six-week march made it into a unified whole for the first time, and got it out the door.

In the six weeks since that binge, I haven't been nearly as productive. I've had to pay the committee-work bills I'd deferred during the binge, and a bunch of new ones that have come due. One reason that I set my private deadline when I did was that I knew that the end of the semester would bring demands that would leave little time for sustained writing. Oh, I've written a lot over the last six weeks: memos, e-mails, reports, an application form, a questionnaire for a survey, even a form rejection letter. All of those writing tasks fit easily into routine, manageable sessions. And for the last six weeks, my scholarly writing has mostly happened in sessions of an hour or so at a time, which means not much gets done. But I'm less frustrated than I would be if I had hoped, unrealistically, to set aside the same amount of time or produce the same number of pages every week. Instead, I experience this crush of busy-work as simply a fallow period between one season of strenuous writing and the next. I have another week or two of grading and bureaucratic reporting, and then summer will have come in and it will be time to write hard again. When that new season starts, I have to be ready.

cross-posted from Dagblog

Monday, May 06, 2013

Why It's Hard to Smear Jason Collins (and Not as Easy to Smear Keynes)

cross-posted from Dagblog

It's been a tough week for elite gay-baiting. First Howie Kurtz, hack journalist extraordinaire, lost his job at the Daily Beast because he badly botched an attempt to smear NBA center Jason Collins. Part of what Kurtz botched was the facts, claiming that Collins had concealed the fact that he had once been engaged to a woman when Collins had "concealed" that fact by explicitly stating it in his Sports Illustrated coming-out article. ("When I was younger I dated women. I even got engaged," is pretty straightforward.) Kurtz, to his credit, has made a full apology.

Then, Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson (also a columnist for the Daily Beast) was also forced to apologize after publicly gay-baiting landmark economist John Maynard Keynes. Ferguson decided to tell an audience that Keynes wasn't interested in long-term policy effects (itself a gross distortion of Keynes's position) because Keynes was a homosexual in a childless marriage. Yes, really. That's the standard of logic and evidence to which Ferguson holds himself.

It's heartening that both of these outrageous pieces of queer-baiting blew up in the queer-baiters' faces. Both Kurtz and Ferguson were using well-established, traditionally effective gambits for smearing homosexuals, moves that Kurtz and Ferguson clearly expected to work because those moves have always worked before. (In fact, many other people, including Ferguson himself, have used Keynes's sexuality as a slur that supposedly discredits his economic thinking; Ferguson thought he'd get away with it because he'd gotten away with it other times.)

Let's look at Kurtz's attack in detail. His claim was that Jason Collins (of whom I myself will only say Stanford Pride) had been dishonest about the fact that he'd been engaged to a woman and deceived that woman. It's a classic anti-gay smear: gays are called dishonest because they've been in the closet, as if the source of dishonesty was not the institution of the closet itself, and the sometimes brutal social penalties for open gayness, but something intrinsic about gayness itself. Force a bunch of people to lie about their sexuality, denounce them as liars if they actually start telling the truth, and then claim that the people you've stigmatized deserve to be stigmatized because they're all naturally dishonest. The only logic here is a social logic, through which nearly any charge will stick to the despised group.

As part of this attack, Kurtz offered Collins's former fiancee as the wronged victim, whose plight the news coverage had unfairly overlooked. The basic motto here is "Won't anyone think about the poor straight girls?" Now, I would never recommend misleading a romantic partner. But it's also the case that closeted gay men have long had various kinds of relationships with women and that many gay men who've deceived their female partners have also deceived themselves on some level. (That John Maynard Keynes was gay does not mean that he did not love his wife.) But the gay-baiter's move is to play up the wrong done to the straight person in order to smear the character of the gay person, and by extension the character of gayness itself. This is how prejudice works, especially in people who don't consider themselves prejudiced: sympathy flows swiftly and easily to people in the favored categories, but is quickly withdrawn from people in stigmatized categories. You become quicker to accept negative ideas about a stigmatized person, and slower to let go of them. Here, the idea is that everyone sheds a few sentimental tears for the poor straight white girl and then turns their resentment upon the duplicitous, untrustworthy gay who did her wrong.

It didn't work, which is progress. But one reason that it didn't work is that Howard Kurtz picked on the wrong guy. Too many people are still quick to believe bad things about homosexuals. But lots of influential and powerful people are actually reluctant to believe bad things about Jason Collins personally, because they know and like him. They are quick and ready to sympathize with Collins as an individual, sexual orientation notwithstanding, because he's already part of their social network. He was inside the charmed circle before he came out of the closet, and he's staying in that circle.

The failure of Kurtz's attack validates the wisdom of letting Collins be the standard-bearer. Collins is clearly a Jackie Robinson figure, not in terms of sheer athletic talent (Collins is merely a superb world-class athlete, one of the top few thousand physical specimens on the planet; Robinson was in a level above that.) but in that, like Robinson, Collins has the social bona fides to blunt attacks on his character. Robinson had gone to USC, been a contender for the Heisman, and held a commission in World War Two. Collins is a Stanford grad. But Collins is even more of a Jackie Robinson type than Robinson, or any other black man in the 1940s, could have possibly been. Collins is socially wired in a way Robinson never was.

Collins is a college friend of Chelsea Clinton. Bill Clinton knows him personally. His college roommate was Joe Kennedy III. And those are just the highlights. Collins is enormously wealthy in social capital, meaning connections and beneficial relationships. He is black. He is gay. And he is firmly a member of the upper class. You can't just roll up on Jason Collins with some bullshit smear and make it stick. He has his people.

On the other hand, Keynes has been a punching bag among certain circles for a long time. Ferguson had to expect his queer-Keynes slur to keep working the way it always had because people were ready to have a gay man slurred but also because they were ready to have John Maynard Keynes slurred. The right wing has made a serious commitment to the idea that Keynes is disreputable. The commitment to making Keynes ridiculous was so strong that you didn't have to bother to have the charges against him make even minimal sense. (The idea that gays have no interest in posterity suggests that there would be no gay sculptors, painters, or writers. Perhaps you've heard of some.) That Ferguson was forced to apologize (this time) suggests that bigotry against gays is weakening somewhat, so that if you want to smear them you have to make it good. But it may also suggest that at this point in our ongoing depression, kneejerk rejection of economic stimulus is starting to wear thin. Maybe at this point, with austerity leading only to economic contraction, you're no longer allowed to backhand Keynes unless you make it good. One can only hope.