Archives for category: adventures in academic publishing

I was among the last players cut during tryouts for the Barrington basketball team for three straight years (middle school and high school, mind you). In 1990 I was told that my outlandish trash-talking after blocking a shot during a game on the last day of tryouts showed that I wasn’t a good team player. In my defence, I was all of 5’6″ and the guy shooting was 6’+. I earned that! I turned my back on basketball to return to my first love, soccer, where someone 5’6″ and 148 pounds (that’s either me or Lionel Messi, although I went all of 125 in 1993), with a tendency to flop and scream and cry (but score goals) can find a welcome embrace.

My more recent experience with getting cut is in academia. Last year I made it through the school, but was cut before the faculty sent their top candidates. I met with people in the university’s research committees and they admitted that the people getting chosen had senior-lecturer-level cvs. For a postdoc. I don’t know how someone like me – an adjunct lecturer without any institutional support (ever) – is supposed to come up with a senior lecturer’s cv. If academia as we know it is dying, I don’t think I’m too heartbroken about that. But before it goes, I’d like to get a little bit of recognition (that is to say, money) out of it in return for all the super-cheap teaching I’ve done on its behalf.

To that end, here’s Section F, the proposal description, for my latest and probably last postdoc application.

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I’ve decided now that I’ve left academia, my research exists to amuse me. Thus, I’m prepping articles on workplace safety in Arthur Hailey novels, urban design in Clive Cussler Dirk Pitt books, Disney’s 1960s output, and infrastructure in Philip Reeve YA novels. I’m wrapping up the Hailey piece, and it’s close to looking decent enough to send out for rejection notices that will, I hope, have good reader reports.

Here’s the last chunk of the introduction:

Gordon Hutner claims in What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel, 1920-1960 that soon-forgotten best seller novels are key to the project of literary criticism. Such books constitute “the merely ordinary, that is, the fiction against which academic tastemakers later needed to contradistinguish the best” (1). Arthur Hailey novels are not widely read in 2014, replaced by the newest iteration of popular fiction from Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, Jodi Picoult. While Hailey’s novels certainly have an ordinary style, they also offer access to another species of ordinary: their status quo, make-no-waves hegemonic political thinking undergirded their contemporary mass appeal. In this manner, Airport represents a key document in the history of literature, culture, and labor politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Airport concentrates not on blue-collar workers who face physical dangers at work as a matter of routine, but on white collar managers and air traffic controllers finding their jobs’ psychological stresses exacerbated by an emergency. The middle-class airport-fiction-reading audience for best sellers like Airport could get behind Hailey’s workplace safety agenda precisely because it’s about them and their psychological well-being at the safe remove of disaster management rather than in the everyday dangers of manual labor. But in making the case for workplace safety that addresses managers’ and professionals’ stresses, Hailey implicitly accepts the importance of workplace expertise and safety for blue-collar laborers as well. In his attention to the stresses of the air traffic controller workplace, Hailey advocates for structures that demand that management operate with worker safety as their guide – first for white collar workers, but with the potential for blue-collar workers as well. In other words, Arthur Hailey is the Richard Nixon of novelists. Airport prepares Hailey’s readers to accept the Occupational Safety Act of 1970 as not just legitimate but necessary, even though it has little interest in the working-class people most likely to benefit from the Act.

Plus, jokes about Zizek’s fondness for toilets,  The Sarge in Airplane II: The Sequel, and plenty of Nixon-scorn.

As I noted here, I’m calling it a day on academia. In my one-last-try at finding a job, I decided to ask one hundred or so department chairs for input on my CV and my research agenda/proposal. My thinking was that a chair is on every job search, so they’d have the best non-specialist, in all likelihood, insight on what looks good in a proposal in general terms. So I picked schools where I could imagine a schlub like me could, in fact, get lucky in a job search. Hence, no Harvard or Yale or any of the hoity toity places. I sent out a blind-submission email to the English department chairs of a mess of solid Directional University and Perfectly Fine Liberal Arts College type places. And a couple of American Studies or Film programs, depending on how they do their naming and organization. I’ve only sent out the first set – I’ll be sending out a second set when I get through the suggested changes from the first batch of responses. But, as I often do, I need to encourage good behaviour.

At the top of my cool list is John Ernest, the chair at Delaware. He was at UNH when I was an MA student, but there’s no reason he’d remember my name twelve years later. His reply was gracious and wonderfully detailed in its suggestions. Paul Gutjahr at Indiana University had a couple simple suggestions that certainly led to improvements. Wes Chapman at Illinois Wesleyan (where I was a college radio DJ, even though I didn’t go to school there) sent a great state-of-liberal-arts in terms of my questions email. Kathryn Temple at Georgetown had a couple good ideas for my proposal and sent it on to a specialist. That sounds like a medical diagnosis. Mark Lussier at Arizona State replied very quickly and very kindly – he had a couple of quick points that were easy to put into action. Finally, Deborah Kaplan at George Mason offered a new way to organize my research proposal that looks promising.

I will let the chairs who responded with, “we have enough adjuncts in our adjunct pool” remain nameless.

On SlideShare there’s a presentation from Melanie Thompson, “Musings of an Online Academic.” One slide in particular horrifies me.

Screen shot 2013-10-13 at 1.56.15 PMSpending ten to twenty hours a week tailoring funding pitches, sending out door prizes, and other crowdsourced funding management related activities sounds not unlike a part-time job that lets you do your job.

That would add up to almost one thousand hours over a year. My teaching contract pays me two hours of prep time as part of my one hour of lecturing time (“1 hour delivery with 2 hours associated work time”). One thousand hours of pay means three hundred and thirty-three contact hours. That time investment is the equivalent to single-handedly delivering 25 semester-long classes, with a little time left over for guest lectures. That’s a lot of teaching prep time pissed away. That’s a lot of research time pissed away.


I’m not quite sure that the chapter will turn out as focussed as this description makes it sound – it seems like I’ll need to bring in a host of other NZ horror films to make a strong case – but I proposed this for a book looking for something on cannibalism:

New Zealand Lamb is People: Bad Taste, Black Sheep, and Farming

It seems that everyone knows that there are more sheep in New Zealand than people. The historian James Bellich, in his Paradise Reforged: A History of the New Zealanders calls the movement of lamb “the protein bridge” between the South Seas and England. Peter Jackson’s mock-documentary Forgotten Silver (1996) bases much of its humour on the incongruity of a peripheral nation at the centre of cinema history; when it comes to the circulation of meat, his 1987 splatter-horror-comedy Bad Taste is firmly rooted in the truth: New Zealand resides much closer to the centre.

Bad Taste cannibalism 1 Bad Taste cannibalism 2

Bad Taste pits a slapstick defense force against invading aliens, concentrating just as much on what the characters put in themselves as what comes out of them. In the film’s most memorable scene, Frank eats a bowl of alien vomit and finds it quite tasty. Jackson shot the film on weekends, close to home, in places like Porirua, where the first McDonalds in New Zealand opened in 1976. Perhaps the location’s history informed Jackson’s decision to make the vomit-eating alien invaders the vanguard of an intergalactic fast food chain intent on factory-farming Earth. Black Sheep (2006) picks up where Bad Taste leaves off, pairing “danger” and “sheep” with trends in GM farming practices spurred by global (or intergalactic) demand for what New Zealand has to offer.

Black Sheep Horror Sheep 10 Black Sheep Horror Sheep 18

The true figure of horror in New Zealand cinema, it seems, is not a zombie (Dead Alive), a fascist government (Sleeping Dogs) or a gunman (Out of the Blue). It is sheep. New Zealand horror films like Bad Taste and Black Sheep reveal that the danger that the alien invasion of American-style factory farming and fast food chains represents to New Zealand would make New Zealanders cannibals: Unless they fight against factory and GM farming, kiwis will become lambs.

Black Sheep NZ taffic jam

The UQ School of English, Media Studies and Art History has a Friday lunch get together that features a couple of short talks – 15 minutes or so – and then half an hour of q-and-a. This week’s is called “ARC Lottery Winners.” That is to say, the Australian Research Council grant – and the grant-hunting model in general, so beloved by the managerialism set – is a tax on academia’s poor. Go ahead and apply, contract lecturer; you gotta be in it to win it.

ADDED LATER: Turns out the person in charge of organizing the event was told that it wasn’t cool to call the event “ARC Lottery Winners.” The identity of the ARC lottery winner who felt this way remains to be determined.

The next time I have success getting some funding for my research will be the first. It’s not that I haven’t been part of successful grant applications – I helped the UNH fencing club get money for a new scoring machine thing back in 2001 and I met more than my share of grant-writers when I worked at University of Canterbury’s Learning Skills Centre. In other words, I’m one of the people the Deakin University is thinking of in their crowdfunding initiative.

But there’s something that really and truly bugs the everloving shit out of me. It’s point number three in their “Five crowdfunding tips“:

Be comfortable mixing the personal and the professional. Successful crowdfunding means engaging with the people who have the biggest investment in seeing you succeed. And nine times out of ten this will be your friends and family, or even your colleagues down the corridor.

I’m supposed to ask my mother, who lives on Social Security disability payments in a trailer because she has Stage IV lung cancer, to send some money my way. I’m supposed to ask my father, who lost his job as a welder and now works on the delivery dock of a grocery store, for money. I’m supposed to ask my sisters for money – because waitresses, social workers, and students are a ready source of buckets of money. After all, they don’t have bills. I do not doubt the good will of my family or my colleagues, but it is not their fucking job to fund my research. I’m lucky to have moved to NZ, where my health problems, which would have cost ten or twelve grand in the States, were covered under national health. Your average humanities PhD in the US carries non-dischargeable undergrad student loan debts and, in all likelihood, a fair amount of credit card debt from emergency dental care and/or medical problems during grad school. I fail to see how asking my paycheck-to-paycheck junior faculty pal for some scratch to fund my research is going to accomplish much.

How, exactly, will crowdfunding help me get a decent gig? It would seem to make me the cheap option, the option that would require nothing of the university other than a hot desk and an email address. I’m already a contract lecturer who gets no research support from the university. The last thing the suits need is some Mitt Romney pep talk from the people who are allegedly on my side.

Rachel Toor has a nice enough piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education about writing. Much of her advice is the exact stuff that I hammer into my students. However, one of the anecdotes she uses combines suburbia and maps in a gloriously infuriating way:

During a workshop with our graduate students, a visiting writer said, “Don’t write like a suburb.” He talked about how he always flipped through the pages of a manuscript to see what the look of the thing could tell him. I did the same thing when, as an editorial assistant, I had to choose which manuscript I wanted to read and report on next. I avoided the drafts that looked like they would be no fun because the text presented itself as boring blocks, with long uninterrupted paragraphs made up of endless sentences—the manuscript equivalents of army bases or grid cities. Instead, I went for those that presented themselves as appealing and interesting, more like maps of Paris or lower Manhattan.

Sure sure grey space is deathly. But when I open a Henry James novel I see lots of grey space, lots of really long sentences, and – here comes a shock – great fucking literature.

Manhattan is set up on a grid system. The map of lower Manhattan shows this grid system with slight variations:

Screen shot 2013-09-05 at 12.40.30 PM A grid system allows you to navigate the city. That’s how good, well-organized writing works too. The map of lower Manhattan, I’m happy to report, looks a little bit like a map of that midwestern metropolis Green Bay, Wisconsin:

Screen shot 2013-09-05 at 12.52.32 PMBoth cities turn their grid to the northeast. This is the reason that my brother-in-law always gets lost when he drives in Green Bay. It’s just slightly off. For some reason the visiting editor didn’t use Green Bay as an example. I’d say that’s because of the thing that bugged me the most about the anecdote.

“Don’t write like a suburb” is, like almost every catchphrase, a bit too facile. I doubt the writer meant a suburb like my home town, Carpentersville, Illinois. When I was moved there in 1977, it was an almost entirely white working-class suburb. By the time I moved to New Hampshire in 2001, Carpentersville was 40% Hispanic, and now it’s 50% Hispanic. It’s still working-class, but one corner of the town fancies itself, and they have found it hard to understand C’Ville’s identity. I was absolutely mortified to read about my home town as the poster town for anti-immigrant sentiment in the New York Times Magazine.

If I want to be kind to the visiting writer (and mix up the editor’s suggestions and hers/his), it’s the map of a suburb that drives the critique. Suburbs, with their culs-de-sacs and winding “aesthetically pleasing” roads, take you nowhere, in circles. Here’s the part of Carpentersville I lived in:

Screen shot 2013-09-05 at 1.06.24 PMAs you can see, Carpentersville doesn’t have a lot of “grey space” – it’s broken up by empty spaces. The long sentence of Route 25 is broken up by the shorter sentences of the bending Kings Road, the 45 degree Amarillo, and the weird half-loop of Sacramento Drive (none of which are my old neighbourhood – I lived on Papoose). True, the limited-access nature of each subdivision seems to preclude the kind of interconnections that an interesting piece of writing would achieve.

But what “write like a suburb” means is “boring,” for people who have boring jobs. I don’t know if Carpentersville even registers in the editor’s world: a working-class new-immigrant suburb where property values have remained stagnant. Places like Carpentersville – multilingual, multicultural – should be where the new and interesting writers emerge from. We can’t all live in Park Slope, after all.

First: a “they must be encouraged”. I have nothing but good things to say about Rex Butler, who was nice enough to give me the rundown on why my postdoc application was turned down. Our postdoc postmortem meeting was the first time we’d said more than hello to each other – not the best foot to get off on. But he clearly showed a great deal of consideration my feelings, to the point that I started to feel like I ought to give him a tissue. For that decency and humanity he has my admiration and respect. If more members of panels fronted up so well, I’d be less filled with rage.

I find it much more difficult to be philosophical about the culture of institutional bullshit Rex had to take the bullet for.

In the end, he admitted, it came down to two main problems: my project’s scope and my cv. The panel wondered if I could deliver on what I promised – a spatial history of Hollywood films from 1927 to 2000. I didn’t have to say anything, because Rex followed his description of the “this project is Too Big” concern with the admission, “then again, if you had proposed a smaller, more manageable project, they would have said that it was too limited.” We’re encouraged, damn near required, to Think Big, to go for Major Paradigm-Shifting Research. But that demand means it’s easy to manufacture a reason to say no to funding. I’m being asked to swallow that “a research monograph with maps” is too grand a project for a three-year postdoc. Perhaps the very clear narrowing of perspective – Top 20 Box Office, Oscar Winners – escaped their notice. Perhaps I was too optimistic that clearly stating that I will be taking a Distant Reading approach – identified by name in the project description and in the bibliography they asked for – would make it clear that I would not be doing close readings of every fucking movie since 1927.

Perhaps the panel’s lack of confidence emerged from the second concern. Rex, to his credit, admitted that “your cv isn’t something you can do much about in the next nine months.” I was up against, in Rex’s words, “senior lecturer-level cvs.” I’ve been a little busy doing the teaching that has enabled continuing academic staff to do their research to build up a senior lecturer-level cv. In fact, I taught more classes over five years at University of Canterbury than my senior lecturer wife – and that includes a year when I was blacklisted by the now-departed PVC-Arts. When “senior lecturer” is the new baseline for a postdoc, the system doesn’t need fuckers like me.

So after talking it over with my wife, I’m chucking it in after 2014. I would like to have a full-time job by the time I’m 40, and there ain’t one to be had in academia.

The difference between a shitty rejection and one you can live with boils down to some small amount of kindness. I hereby submit a rejection notice from Anna Sloan at Sussex as evidence of how to be a decent person in a rejection notice. I hope she doesn’t mind my quoting from her email to me:

I hope that you will consider submitting it to the conference committee as a stand-alone paper, and I very much hope that you will have success with it.

That’s all it takes. As far as I’m concerned, Anna Sloan goes to the front of the line.

This was my proposal, which, as per usual, is a pretty great idea that I feel like I don’t explain as well as I ought to:

The Geography of Prestige: Narrative Settings and The Oscars, 1929-1976 (the map of locations)

Where is an Oscar-winner? This presentation will consider the location of Oscar-nominated films to understand the where of prestige in Hollywood. Setting matters in terms of narrative, form, and ideology, and this presentation will locate the narrative, formal and ideological shifts in Hollywood cinema on the map with Hollywood’s autobiographical account of Quality Cinema – the Best Picture nomination – as its metric.

This presentation will begin with a map of the narrative locations of the films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar from 1929 through 1976. A second set of maps based on US Census demographic data will profile the film-going audience on a national, state, and regional scale, for example, the most populous, most affluent and most impoverished areas in relation to narrative locations. Placing these two sets of maps into conversation across three broad periods – 1929-1944, 1946-1960, and 1961-1976 – I will trace the history of the locations of prestige in relation to changing American demographics, and speculate, with close readings of representative films, on how and why their setting signals quality to the contemporary audience. By mapping the locations of Oscar nominees, I will consider the locations that classical Hollywood prestige pictures used to position a particular set of American landscapes to prominence, and the degree of change caused by the breakup of the old system.