Archives for the month of: November, 2014

When I was a student at University of New Hampshire, I took a class co-taught by Jane Bellamy (who is now at University of Tennessee Knoxville). Two things she said that semester stick with me. The first is more a question of how she said things. She would talk about how a book is about concrete things (its plot/content), but about other things (its larger formal and ideological significance/s). When she said the second-meaning about, she would drop her voice an octave and add gravel to it. I stole this approach immediately, and use it to this day.

The semester after Bellamy’s class (which she co-taught with Sandhya Shetty), I took a class that Janet Aikins Yount taught. During one class, she told the class that anyone who does their standard reading on any and every text (what Jane Bellamy called “pouring the book into the theory grinder”) is doing the text and themselves a great disservice. Your reading of the text, she made quite clear, needed to emerge from the evidence in front of you. Thus, I wrote a not-particularly great seminar paper for that class. I took some solace in her comment that she was happy to see that I tried to stretch myself.

I’ve been thinking about Jane and Janet a fair bit as I’ve been watching Jack Nicholson movies for a chapter in Hollywood’s Imaginary Geography. I don’t really like Jack. If pressed, I’d probably say About Schmidt is my favourite Nicholson film. But so help me, when I sat down and looked at the films that get lumped together in the Hollywood Renaissance canon, I saw that he occupies a significant place in the canon. The empty space at the centre of the Hollywood Renaissance’s vision of America is especially clear in Nicholson’s films through 1980.

The pink dots are the more or less agreed-upon Hollywood Renaissance films, the grey the top 25 films from 1967-1980, and the green dots are Nicholson movies from 1967-1980. I can already see that I forgot to add in Richmond VA from The Last Detail and Estes Park CO from The Shining, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

Hollywood Renaissance Jack Nicholson Top 25

What we can see in the Nicholson locations is the road trips his films take up the coasts (Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail) and across the bottom third of the country (Easy Rider) with a few coastal locations (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Carnal Knowledge, Chinatown). There’s no middle America. In fact, the only distinctly middle American filmmaker in the Hollywood Renaissance is Peter Bogdanovich, who has Paper Moon and The Last Picture Show. But otherwise, the sense of “flyover country” is quite strong. To riff on the tagline for Easy Rider, when the film brats went looking for America, they couldn’t find it anywhere in the midwest.

Last Detail Portsmouth NH 3

Chinatown Echo Park 1

Five Easy Pieces derrick 2

I would never have consciously decided to write about Jack Nicholson (at least not like I was happy to write about Burt Reynolds), but what his movies are about, in terms of their locations/geography, emerges quite clearly out of the data.

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I really wish I’d have given up on an academic position much sooner. When I tell people about my job now, I always say, “If I’d known I’d have liked this job so much, I’d have looked for it much sooner.” A while back someone I follow on twitter approvingly linked to “No End in Sight: Academic Research and “Time Off”” In it, Amanda Ann Klein writes about her search for a job “that might actually pay me a salary commensurate with my rank and experience,” which is what I went through for five years as a trailing spouse. It made me an increasingly miserable and unlikable person. Then she did something that I cannot praise enough:

What happens when a professor no longer has any incentive to work at the breakneck pace at which she has been encouraged to work since she first embarked upon that great and arduous journey towards a career in academia?

Nothing. Nothing happens. And, dear reader, it is glorious.

I had much the same experience in “leaving” academia. I still work in a university, but I’m professional staff. I work with international ESL students, mostly from science and engineering, to help them improve their writing. And I get paid a lot of money. Like a fuckton of money: twice as much as I have ever made in my life (which doesn’t say much for my previous earning capacity but then again it’s still more than a tenured professor makes at a state university in the US, so small victory there). I make this wonderful amount of HEW8-rank money for working all of four days a week. I work 9 to 5 and when I get home my time is my own. Monday through Thursday I read or watch movies or surf online. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, unless I have a soccer game, and when I’m not running errands, I do research during the day.

I get a lot done. Since March I’ve signed a contract for The Imaginary Geography of Hollywood Cinema, 1960-2000, returned proofs for two articles within 24 hours, finished/revised seven articles and one book chapter, finished the data-accumulation and written a two-page version of a book proposal about spy novels and clandestine geography that I will do after the imaginary geography book. I’ve also gone to two film conferences (one in town, one in Tasmania) because I make enough money as a not-contract-lecturer-without-institutional-support-of-any-kind to pay my own way to a conference. I did share a room with a postgrad to save money, but that’s more out of habit than anything else. I’ve also invited tp participate (travel and hotel paid for!) in the National Tertiary Education Union’s Insecure Work Conference. I got picked (and funded) because of my experience as an adjunct and, now, as a “soft-money”-funded professional staff member. It should be a combination of fury-inducing confrontations with the status quo and inspiring discussion of how the union can deal with it practically.

What I find most wonderful about this situation is that I do what I want to do because I want to do it. When we moved to New Zealand in 2008, I thought I just wanted to teach. But I found, in between hustling for tutor and lecturer gig and getting blacklisted by the PVC Arts that I kind of liked to do research. And that there wasn’t much that looked like mine. And that when I wrote about what I wanted to write about, I could write like a person rather than a research-unit-producing-staff-member.

So this is a rare happy story in the “adventures in academic publishing” category. I dusted off this draft because one of the editors I’m working with 1) praised my ability to turn around requested revisions quickly and 2) then asked for a very fast turnaround. When I felt OK with that, I knew that something was amiss, but in a positive sense.

Sometimes there’s a map that could be just about anything. This map, from kinomatics, is one of those maps:

ScreeningsMapAus-300x209

This map is part of a piece that is completely dead right about the never-ending calendar of film releases. Hobbit movies come out in December, but stay in theatres longer. Does that make them movies from their year of release, or the next one? The “Hobbit Year” solves the problem nicely, and you can also imagine an overlapping Marvel Universe year.

I’ve run into this micro-periodizing problem myself – I’ve opted to solve it by using Variety’s calendar-year grosses. My approach creates some problems — it pushes some December-release hits lower on the list — but release patterns were a little different between 1960-1975 or so, which made me opt for calendar year.

Release patterns are really the problem I have with the map of places The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug played. The map of Hobbit locations looks almost exactly the same as a map of Australia’s population (from here):

Australia_Population_Map

In the end, the two messages of Kinomatics’ Hobbit map is, “every theatre in Australia played it” and “the major urban centres played it before regional locations.” I’m all for saying the things we leave unsaid, but…

The Hobbit map shows the booking pattern for any blockbuster: open wide, on multiple screens in the biggest theatres you can find, and try to get as much in the first weekend as possible, while it’s an event, not a slog ruined by word of mouth. In Australia you’d then move out to the regions (and maybe whatever remote locations you can find a bit later). For a prestige film you’d hit Melbourne and Sydney and ignore/skip Launceston and Cairns.

Similarly, you could make a map of prestige films being released in North America and every map would have really dark circles for the first cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Toronto. Similarly, the really light circles for later playdates would be in smaller less film-buffy cities like Nashville, Cleveland, and St Louis.

I recently applied for a job in an academic department. I didn’t really want the job, but I wanted to know – I might even say needed to know – if I could least make the long list, the short list, or even the interview stage. I’ve stopped applying for academic jobs not only because I have a job that I really love, but also because I grew weary of writing carefully tailored cover letters. What I have grown even more weary of is the endless “will you be one of my referee?” emails. But I found referees on three continents to support this application and sent in the materials with a fair bit of confidence.

Needless to say, I didn’t even make the long list.

As I read the rejection letter, something one of my referees mentioned during one of our email exchanges immediately came to mind. This referee wrote, and I paraphrase, “you’d be a good hire, but they’re going to hire an Important Department Member’s former student, who is currently “stuck” teaching at a university in a sub-optimal location.”

Something Jonathan Wilson recently wrote about match-fixing in cricket seems to speak to inside-track, specially-written job description success in the academic job market. Wilson first tells a story about the press box in Romania greeting the news of Chelsea scoring two late goals to snatch a victory with the immediate response, “Fixed!” Then he tells a story about a cricketer he knows:

The former Test player told me about his greatest performance for his country. With the opposition chasing a gettable target in the fourth innings, he’d taken three quick wickets in the final session to help secure a narrow victory. He spoke of his pride, of the thought that whatever else happened, he’d helped his country win a memorable victory. Now, he says, he looks back and wonders. Was it genuine?

Why did that player hit the ball in the air from that delivery? And why had that other player missed that straight one to be lbw? The greatest hour of his professional life, he said, had been ruined by doubt, because now he wondered whether he had actually taken those wickets, or whether they had been ordered by some bookmaker on the other end of a phone.

That is terrible. It’s like finding out that the wife you thought loved you is being paid to stick around, like finding out that the friends who laugh at your jokes are actually resentful extras, like finding out that the glowing review for your new book was actually written by your agent’s best mate. It’s like realising you’re Truman Burbank. I can’t even begin to quantify how that must feel, to strive for years at a skill, to work and practise and hone and refine and then to produce under pressure at a key moment, and not to know whether you deserve the congratulations.

That former Test player had lost his faith in sport, and perhaps even a little in life. Those Romanian journalists were so browbeaten by the regular scandals of the game in their country at the time that they preferred to meet all sport with a carapace of scorn than believe a good team could score two late goals against a less good team.

And that is, in a nutshell, how academia has not changed. What used to be an old boys club is just a more diverse club. Or at least that’s a way to look at how the limited number of good jobs get distributed within the realm of possibility. I guess that counts as an improvement?