Matt Groening takes on the academic job crisis

From tonight’s episode of The Simpsons:

[Marge, Bart, and Lisa go to their local "Bookaccino" superbookstore.]

LISA: I’m going up to the fourth floor, where the books are!
BART: I’m going to taunt the Ph.Ds!

[Bart approaches the three workers at the espresso bar, all of whom wear glasses and bored expressions.]

BART: Hey guys! I heard a new assistant professorship just opened up!

[Ph.D’d baristas gasp and lean forward eagerly.]

BART: Yes, that’s right. At the University of … PSYCH!

And this, my friends, is why I love The Simpsons. Long may it continue to run.


I want a Marilyn Horne Zippo lighter! (I was just listening to a Met Opera broadcast intermission feature about her, from which I learned that both she and the Zippo are from Bradford, PA, hence the commemorative lighter.) It was Marilyn Horne, by the way, who described the standard roles for the operatic mezzo-soprano in one of my favorite Opera Singer Quotations ever: "I’m either the girl who doesn’t get the guy, or I am the guy, and that’s fine with me."


Found at my local library’s big semiannual used book sale today:

Alice Fulton, Feeling as a Foreign Language: The Good Strangeness of Poetry
Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form
Herbert Liebowitz, ed., Parnassus: Twenty Years of Poetry in Review
J. D. McClatchy, ed., The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry

All together, they cost a grand total of $2. Gloat!

And here’s a random bit of conversation, overheard at the same venue, that I found funny for some reason:

SMALL CHILD: Mommy, these are nonfiction.
MOTHER: Actually, sweetie, they’re mysteries.
SMALL CHILD: Nonfiction mysteries?

In praise of “minor” works of literature

What, though, is that happy cliché of literary criticism, a "minor" work? Surely not, prima facie, a work by a minor writer, since we’re told major writers produce their share. Yet if major writers produce minor works without losing their mark of heaven, doesn’t fairness dictate that minor writers can produce major works without losing their stigmata?

Issues of that sort emanate from one of the most beguiling publishing start-ups in recent times, England’s Hesperus Press (distributed in the United States by Trafalgar Square Books, in North Pomfret, Vt.). Alessandro Gallenzi and Elisabetta Minervini, the Italian husband-and-wife translating team who started the line in London two years ago, say their beautiful paperbacks are "dedicated to bringing near what is far — far in both space and time." Their specialty? "Works by illustrious authors, often unjustly neglected or simply little known in the English-speaking world."

Carlin Romano, "Hesperus Readers Must be Accompanied by a Minor" (The Chronicle Review, 1/23/04)

I want to work for Hesperus Press. What a nifty idea, to make the "minor" classics accessible in paperback. Any press that publishes Jane Austen’s Love and Friendship — her very early parody of the epistolary novel, which contains the absolutely priceless line "We fainted alternately on a sofa" — gets my vote of approval.

The hell? Or rather, The horror! The horror!

All the cool kids are doing this, but I have to say, I’m rather surprised to find out:

What Classic Movie Are You?

Yet another career possibility

I’ve been thinking that perhaps I should try looking for work in book indexing. Not just because I take pleasure in a well-indexed book and greatly enjoyed the threads on indexing last fall at Crooked Timber and languagehat; it also seems like the kind of work I would find congenial. Via the American Society of Indexers, I found an interesting site for people considering indexing, complete with a list of characteristics common to indexers, and I recognized quite a lot of myself in the list. For example, the list suggests that successful indexers:

Have good pattern recognition skills
Read carefully and quickly
Are good "listeners" who can hear what the author intends to say . . .
Are general information addicts
Enjoy working crossword puzzles (optional)
Enjoy thinking of one word synonyms (not optional) . . .
Have good spelling and grammar
Are self-motivated and work well alone
Are computer-literate, email-literate . . .
Have good language synthesis and/or writing skills . . .
Do detailed needlework (optional)
Alphabetize things (records, CDs, books, spices) . . .
Like to organize things by category (contents of drawers, refrigerators, cupboards, closets, bookcases, spices, life)

All of the above are true of me, though my spice cabinet and bureau drawers tend toward a state of entropy most of the time. Still: crossword puzzles, needlework, alphabetized books and CDs, good spelling, pattern recognition skills (which are what I spent my graduate school years honing), information addiction: yes to all. The only thing is, most indexers are freelancers and I’d rather have steady employment than go freelance right now. But maybe I’ll change my mind eventually.

(Or maybe it’s just that the ASI’s page on "Indexers in Fiction" makes me want to write a novel with an indexer as the main character.)

Still on this knitting thing…

…and experimenting with TypePad’s image-posting feature:


This is a swatch of a pattern called "Eccentric Zigzag" or "Scroll Lace," which I think I’m going to use for a shawl, or at least for a few sections of a shawl. Except it’ll be in a much finer yarn, and purple.

And, as a followup to the previous post: Proof that chaos theorists read poetry!

Knitting epiphany

Via frizzyLogic: Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s theory of geek knitting makes complete and utter sense to me. Not because I’m a math geek — I’m not, though I love the idea that people have designed Möbius scarves, or perhaps that’s my inner Lacanian talking — but because I’m a poetry geek. Knitting has a formal logic that appeals to the same parts of my brain that get fascinated by recurring patterns of all kinds: rhyme schemes and assonances, the oxbow and delta patterns made by rivers as they appear from overhead in a plane, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the shapes of leaves, the way words in dissimilar languages can turn out unexpectedly to be cognates. As Teresa puts it in her knitting post, drawing a botanical analogy:

When I was eleven or twelve, and liked to sketch trees, trunk and branch and twig, I decided that all trees were somehow the same. It was as though there were a single underlying form to them, and the apparent differences of this or that species were the playing-out of a small set of rules laid upon that form in different combinations and proportions: vertical or horizontal, lax or rigid, rough or smooth, straight or curving or kinked, having greater or lesser distance between instances of new branching. I was delighted years later to hear that some branch of mathematics had decided that all trees were the same tree modified by variations on a small set of rules.

Coincidentally or not, that’s very much like how I often think about poetry: as a kind of interaction between predetermined elements and deliberate choice, with outcrops of randomness.

Lately, despite my lack of a math background, I’ve been growing more aware of how knitting patterns work; I’ll be knitting a swatch of some complicated lace thing and I’ll start to recognize how there’s a mathematical sequence going on, how it’s all built around a principle like "keep moving the eyelet holes one stitch over in one direction, then the other." This feels very much like what happens in my head when, for instance, I’m reading a sestina and at the back of my mind I’m following the shifting returns of the end-words: 123456, 615243, 364125…

This doesn’t exclude free verse, either. The poet Alice Fulton has a couple of essays about "fractal verse," a concept analogous to fractal geometry*; she writes about how mathematical concepts from chaos theory can help us think about poetry that isn’t strictly "formal." In a very similar vein, Paul Lake has written about science and the shape of poems in nontraditional forms (here and here).

I’ve also been noticing that people keep coming to this blog via Google searches for "knitting poetry" (hi, people who want to know about knitting and poetry; this one’s for you), often enough to make me think that other knitters are thinking about the intellectual side of the craft. At the same time, knitting appeals to me because it’s tactile and physical in ways that many other kinds of intellectual activity aren’t. Maybe that’s why I know so many graduate students who knit. I got into it because I wanted texture and color; now I’m discovering the theoretical side. I’ve got to find me a bunch of geeky fellow knitters to start a stitch’n’bitch.

*Some knitter more skilled than I am ought to design some fractal knitting patterns. A nice Mandelbrot set shawl, maybe? A Sierpinski triangle sweater? The latter actually looks quite feasible, though of course one couldn’t have an infinite number of iterations.)

In which I pretend to be an advice columnist

Today‘s advice section features a letter from "Panicked Prospective Ph.D. Candidate", who is applying to a raft of Ph.D. programs but has become paralyzed with anxiety. Writes PPPh.D.C: "I don’t know if I can handle being rejected by every single school I have chosen — not that I would go off the deep end or anything, but I honestly think I would be absolutely crushed, humiliated, etc., but worse, have no sense of what I will do next." Advice columnist Cary Tennis offers some sensible suggestions in reply; he recommends taking a rational approach to panic and questioning the "truth value" of all those paralysis-inducing inner voices that insist that the world will end. All good advice, and worth reading (you can access it without a subscription if you’re willing to click through Salon’s ads).

But there are a few additional things PPPh.D.C ought to know about what s/he is getting into. I doubt you’re reading this, PPPh.D.C, but just in case you are: First of all, if you have a hard time handling rejection — as lots of us do, if that makes you feel any better — then getting rejected by graduate programs is only the beginning. Rejection at the outset is less personal, and therefore less stinging, than rejection later on, when you’ve got more invested in the idea of being an academic. If you don’t get in, you can take consolation in the fact that you’ve applied to highly competitive programs, that there’s arbitrariness built into the process, and that you can always try again.

But if you do get into graduate school, you’ll have to deal with a lot of other kinds of rejection. You might have to compete for fellowships. You might encounter the kind of professor who doesn’t believe in giving positive feedback to graduate students, and who will comment on your seminar paper that your bibliography is thin and your research unoriginal, thus leading you to think seriously about dropping out after your first semester and going to work at Borders. And then there’s the rejection that you read into every negative student evaluation when you start teaching ("They thought I was boring? *sob* But I worked so hard to make it more interesting for them!"). And then, if you do decide that academia is the place for you — which is not by any means a given — you will have to confront the low likelihood of your getting a tenure-track job. Rejection by half a dozen Ph.D. programs pales in comparison to rejection by fifty job-search committees. During my abortive academic job search last year, I found it relatively easy to cope with the rejection letters from the departments I didn’t really think would hire me. But the department that interviewed me last year, thus giving me real grounds to think they might want me, and then never deigned to get back to me with a rejection letter? Well, I’m still smarting a bit from that one. (Though really, it’s less a "where did I go wrong?" kind of smarting and more "I wish I could give them a piece of my mind.") In general, the more total time you’ve sunk into preparing for an academic life, the harder it is to walk away and the worse the rejections will be.

I think I’ve grown a much thicker skin than I used to have when I first entered graduate school. I’ve learned not to take it personally. But still, a Ph.D. program isn’t exactly the kind of environment where it’s easy to maintain your self-esteem. You might want to consider this, PPPh.D.C, before you head off to pursue your degree. You might consider doing something else first, something that will remind you that you’re bright and competent and capable, because you’ll need to remember that in grad school, where it’s easy to suspect that all the other graduate students are more brilliant than you are.

My advice? If you don’t know what to do next, don’t expect graduate school to provide the answer. You might end up, like me, deciding that after spending your 20s going after a Ph.D., you still don’t know what to do next. Better to get a job and earn a bit of money, even if the job isn’t what you see yourself doing in five or ten years.

Curiosity of the day

In not one but two of Midwestern University’s libraries, someone has written a quotation from Shakespeare’s Richard II (Act 5, Scene 5) — "I wasted time, and now doth time waste me" — on carrel walls. Is it the work of a single obsessed Shakespearean? Several undergraduates who all took the same survey course? A team of secret agents working to increase public awareness of chiasmus? I have no idea, but it intrigued me.