Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Lazy Scholar Interview’ Category

Dear Panama-Hat-sporting summerers,

Most of what I knew about fraternities I learned from watching Animal House and Old School. Until, that is, I read The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities by Nicholas Syrett, assistant professor of history at University of Northern Colorado . Published in 2009 by UNC Press, Syrett’s lucid, ambitious, and dizzyingly well-researched book follows the birth and growth of the American fraternity from the 1800s to the present, with anecdotes and evidence from chapters across the country. Casual readers will certainly walk away with plenty of fascinating facts to wow their friends (first fraternity: Kappa Alpha Society at Union College, founded in 1825; first residential frat house: Zeta Psi house at UC Berkeley, built in 1876; first instance of beer funneling: okay, no evidence on this one just yet). But the book truly excels in tracking the shifts in “manly” and “masculine” behavior among fraternity brothers over two centuries, as standards around scholarship, intimacy, sexuality, and aggression continually changed.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on two projects at the moment.  One, that will probably result in an article considers a male couple together from the 20s to the 60s in Illinois and Hawaii, who lived as father and son though they were not biologically related.  The elder actually adopted the younger in the 1960s.  The second is what I’m hoping will be a book about the history of child marriage and the regulation of child sexuality in the nineteenth and twentieth-century United States.  I’m interested in how the institution of marriage has been used to legitimize that which we otherwise prohibit (child sexuality) and also the ways that children themselves manipulated the law because they recognized this.

What digital resources do you rely on?
Given that the web existed by the time I got to college, I am remarkably un-savvy about matters technological. I use JSTOR religiously for academic articles and am a recent convert to the American Historical Newspapers database.

What is the best research or writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Someone once told me that if writing wasn’t going well, and if you were the type of person who could generally recognize when it was (as most of us probably are), then just take a break.  As a result I saw many movies at the Angelika, Sunshine, and Paris (my very favorite) theatres in the middle of a weekday afternoon.  And was much better able to return to writing the next morning.

What was the inspiration behind your dissertation?
I was really fascinated by the way that men (mis)behaved in groups and the history behind this sort of behavior.  Why was it that I found myself scared when I walked down the street and noticed that a group of young men approached from the other direction?  Why was this fear actually a rational response, given what sociologists and anthropologists have told us about young men’s behavior in groups?  From there I just picked a group of men (white college fraternities) and started researching their history.

What advice would you give someone working on their dissertation?
I concur with Tania Modleski’s earlier advice that you should pick something that you truly love.  To that I would add that you should envision your dissertation as the book that it will most likely become.  I have seen many people postpone a crucial area of research while writing their dissertations, thinking that they will leave it “for the book.”  Once you get a job, finding the time—in the midst of the rest of one’s life as well as that job—to do all the extra research and transform a dissertation into a book is hard.  If it’s in a state of looking and reading like a book already, your first few years of teaching are a lot easier and a lot less stressful.

What’s the one book or article published before 1970 that has most influenced your work?
I’m going to pick two, but they’re both by the same person.  Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) and Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1963).  In both of them Goffman is really smart in talking about everyday behavior and the ways that we, as humans, are cognizant of how we behave and what it says about us as people.

What was the last thing you read to seriously inspire or haunt you?
Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You has little to do with my own academic interests but it still haunts me, as does most of his fiction.

What primary source do you dream of finding?
Of course the answer depends on the project, but right now: the diary of a child bride, circa 1850.

What website most often draws your attention away from work?
I am much more likely to be distracted by things non-web related—cleaning, food, the telephone—but I tend to check email obsessively (sort of a website?) and I do love the ladies of GoFugYourself.

What do you see as the most annoying tendency in contemporary scholarship?
I get really irritated by self-conscious affectation in writing.  When people invent new words to describe things for which words already exist, it just seems such a transparent attempt to link one’s name to something in hopes of securing a reputation.  Claiming the invention of a new and innovative methodology that looks suspiciously similar to what many of us are already doing is also rather precious.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

To the Vitamin-D-deprived,

Last year, Norman Podhoretz, neocon pioneer and Commentary editor from 1960 to 1995, published the tauntingly titled book Why Are Jews Liberal?. He might have come to different conclusions (or even a subtler question) had he more closely read Michael Staub’s Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America. In that nuanced 2002 study, Staub skillfully untangles the complex and fierce political debates that divided Jewish communal leaders and intellectuals from the 1940s into the 70s and 80s, whether over the “Jewishness” of social radicalism, the connections between Zionism and the civil rights movement, or the impact of the sexual revolution.

Staub, professor of English at Baruch College, CUNY, is also the author of  Voices of Persuasion: Politics of Representation in 1930s America (1994), and the editor of the indispensable sourcebook The Jewish 1960s, a collection of readings ranging from the Holocaust to Soviet Jewry.

What projects, large or small, academic or non-academic, are you working on now? And/or what projects have you recently completed?
I am now finishing a book, Madness is Civilization: When the Diagnosis was Social, 1948-1980, to be published by the University of Chicago Press sometime late in 2011. It’s an intellectual and cultural history of anti-psychiatry in the postwar U.S., with chapters on the roots of anti-psychiatry already in the 1940s and 1950s, on the work and influence of R. D. Laing, Erving Goffman and Thomas Szasz in the 1960s, and on radical and feminist therapy and popular psychology in the 1970s.

What non-digital resource would you recommend
The guide to the Underground Press Collection.

What digital resource would you recommend?
The Chadwyck Periodicals Archive Online Collection.

What is the best research or writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Turn your problems into your solutions. When you run into interpretive difficulties, use that as a clue to the more complex argument you need to be making.

What was the inspiration behind your dissertation?
The inspiration for my dissertation began with a class I never took. While an undergraduate at Hampshire College, Prof. Barry O’Connell (at Amherst) mentioned to me a course he had offered the year before on Depression-era culture. I asked for the syllabus. Some years later as a grad student in American Civilization at Brown, I developed my own undergraduate seminar on the Great Depression based on Barry’s class. This in turn led to my teaching Agee and Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book I had not previously read. The students may have been baffled, but I was totally intrigued. And I started to formulate my dissertation on documentary and ethnographic expression during the 1930s and writers’ struggles to experiment with form and style to convey to readers the perspectives of the dispossessed.

What advice would you give someone working on their dissertation?
No good can come from trying to hit a moving target. Do not begin a project by thinking about what the marketplace can bear—or what might sell. By the time the manuscript is done and ready for publication, all will have moved on and changed.

How does your teaching connect to your research?
I teach literature and writing in an undergraduate English program, but my research is in American history. In many respects, I consider myself fortunate to be able to move between different disciplines when I teach and when I write. Occasionally there is overlap, for example when I had the chance to co-teach a course on Holocaust history and literature, and was able to draw on Torn at the Roots—which reperiodizes the evolution of Holocaust consciousness in America—and The Jewish 1960s.

What’s the one book or article published before 1970 that has most influenced your work?
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, an early classic of the New Journalism and a remarkable retelling of the American twentieth century. It’s also an oral history, a fact-based literary genre with which I have long been fascinated.

What was the last thing you read to seriously inspire or haunt you?
John Le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man, a chillingly plausible account of a person subjected to what euphemistically is known as extraordinary rendition.

What do you see as the most annoying tendency in contemporary scholarship?
A lack of passion.

Read Full Post »

Dear sun bathers,

Today the Lazy Scholar talks to a decidedly un-lazy historian, Davarian L. Baldwin, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity College. Baldwin’s  first book, Chicago’s New Negroes: Modernity, The Great Migration, and Black Urban Life, published by UNC Press in 2007, offers an inspired look at the labors and leisures of African-Americans who settled in Chicago in the 1910s and 20s. Touching on figures from famed boxer Jack Johnson to “beauty culture” pioneer Madame C. J. Walker, and topics from “race films” to baseball, Baldwin deftly reveals the political, economic, and social debates behind urban consumer culture. Anyone who studies race, gender, or popular culture should prepare to add it their summer reading lists, and maybe their fall syllabi, too.

What projects are you working on now?
I am actually working on two pretty major projects that have me both excited and overwhelmed. One I am completely done researching, which is Land of Darkness: Race and the Making of Modern America. In this project I take on the long-held axiom that the U.S. social sciences have provided us with modern ideas about race.  I use a close reading of the ‘Chicago School’ at its turn of the twentieth century origins to examine how the lived experiences of race in the city in fact shaped the rise of the U.S. social sciences and their impact on urban public policy throughout the twentieth century.

The second project UniverCities offers a series of case studies to unpack the meaning of urban universities and their attendant medical centers as the dominant employers, real estate holders, policing agents, and educational and health care providers in almost every major metropolitan center in the country.

What digital resource(s) do you rely on, or would you recommend?
For my earlier work, I loved “African-American Newspapers and Periodicals,” but now for my more contemporary studies, I must admit that reading the responses to articles and essays on blogs and websites is quite telling for me about the tenor, especially of a heated cultural issue. So for example, when there was all of this uproar around the comments Serena Williams made to a line judge, the pages of comments did not offer a scientific data set but were fascinating and horrifying nonetheless (can you tell I am working on an essay on the Williams Sisters?)

What non-digital resources would you recommend?
I still love Raymond Williams’ Keywords and the new American Studies version is quite helpful as well.

What is the best research or writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
Especially for historians, who have to manage both the archival and the transmission of that material, we can tend to get bogged down in endless archival work which then makes getting to the writing very difficult even after the archival bits are “completed.” The best advice I got was after you feel like you have done enough archival research to establish a basic argument and vision and all the research is fresh in your head…just write the story. Many of us tend to write and pause at every sentence to find relevant sources. Don’t worry about all that, draft the story and then go back and find the appropriate quotes and sources. Again this is after you have a pretty firm sense of the data. I have been told, by people with whom I shared this advice, that it’s quite liberating!

What was the inspiration behind your dissertation?
I definitely think it was a my mother. She worked in a factory in the Midwest, but once she got off work (and even on the job) she told these amazing stories, was a mathematical genius and wore these amazing haute couture dresses. SO my basic premise was that everyday folk think and produce knowledge and it is our limitation as scholars for not peering into the world and ways in which people think, create, and debate ideas beyond the church and the seminar room, so in my case consumer culture and consumption itself.

What advice would you give someone working on their dissertation?
Someone has already said it here but write on a topic that you LOVE, something that can sustain you for many years on even the days when you don’t want to write. Also even though the current academic marketplace in some ways requires us to write award wining dissertations. I really see the dissertation as a glorified data dump, simply because once you think about a book version the ways in which your imagined audience changes (from a committee of maybe 5 to hopefully hundreds) profoundly transforms your written voice. So that is also some advice: audience. Be clear about who you are speaking to and why, in any piece of writing.

How does your teaching connect to your research?
Trying out ideas on students is amazing, not just to see if the ideas fly but to gauge whether you, the writer/teacher, has delved deep enough into an idea (and come out) with an ability to make that idea legible to a wider audience beyond specialists. But also I have tended to move away from teaching just my research. I think the academy went through that general trend and now we have a generation of students who can speak expertly about their teacher’s expertise but struggle to situate it within larger conceptual, temporal, and spatial contexts.

What’s the one book or article published before 1970 that has most influenced your work?
CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary. I was abhorred (in some ways) by his Edwardian haughtiness but that he could be so pretentious and still come out with this amazing examination of colonization/decolonization through CRICKET! Truly Amazing! I don’t think enough culture scholars read that book, but then most don’t know cricket, but in some ways you don’t have to.

What was the last thing you read to seriously inspire or haunt you?
I think Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums, both because this factual account almost mirrored sci-fi work that I had been reading by people like Paolo Bacigalupi and also because of its amazing global breadth without losing a depth of argument.

What primary source do you dream of finding?
The blueprints that the shopping cart man was pushing around in Ellison’s Invisible Man.

What website most often draws your attention away from work?
Definitely music websites and blogs, especially BBC Radio’s Benji B show…I ALWAYS have to have music to make it through writing projects.

What do you see as the most annoying tendency (or tendencies) in contemporary scholarship?
I definitely see beautiful prose, great stories, polished arguments, but I am missing a messy sense of urgency in writing and thinking out loud THROUGH, not before writing. I am most annoyed by conferences where, the constant spectre of the market, forces young scholars to take a polished 40 page paper and boil it down to 15 minutes with perfection. I miss the days of conferences when you brought an idea at the start of your thinking and tried it out on an audience expecting critique and revision…I miss that.

Read Full Post »

In his eloquent introduction to Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples, Michael Robertson remembers searching for spiritual guidance in the late 1970s: others turned to Buddhism and the Bhagavad Gita; he turned to Leaves of Grass. As his captivating and beautifully composed 2008 study reveals, he was hardly the first. Almost immediately after Whitman began publishing, readers like John Burroughs, Edward Carpenter, and Oscar Wilde approached his work less as poetry than prophecy, offering a new vision of nature, faith, gender, and sexuality. British writer Anne Gilchrist, for one, was so taken with Whitman and his work that she crossed the Atlantic, three of her children in tow, with plans to become his wife. She would be sorely disappointed.

Professor of English at the College of New Jersey, Robertson traces the lives of these and other Whitman followers in Worshipping Walt and simultaneously provides a portrait of the spiritual and literary world of the late nineteenth century.  He is also the co-editor of Walt Whitman, Where the Future Becomes Present, and author of Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature.

What project are you working on now?

My book in progress, The Last Utopians, looks at utopian socialists in the U.S. and U.K. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  I’m focusing on Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  The research is proving to be great fun, and the deeper I plunge into the project, the more I’m convinced of the wisdom of Oscar Wilde’s aphorism, “A map of the world that does not contain Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

What was the last thing you read to seriously inspire or haunt you?

I recently finished Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed, a wildly entertaining and inventive science fiction novel about an ambiguously utopian future.  It’s so serious and profound in its engagement with politics at every level—nation, family, gender, sexuality, work, food—that it makes most of the fiction I read seem pallid in comparison.

What digital resource do you rely on?

As a teacher of poetry, I’m ever-grateful for Modern American Poetry, the website developed by Cary Nelson at the University of Illinois.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

Will Howarth, my mentor at Princeton, told me, “Start writing before you think you’re ready.  The writing will show you the gaps in what you know; you can fill those in later.”  It’s easy to think, I have to read absolutely everything that’s relevant before I begin writing.  But that can easily turn into a way of postponing the hard work of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

What’s the one book or article published before 1970 that has most influenced your work?

Why 1970?  If you’ll say 2000, I’ll say Susan Bordo’s The Male Body (1999).  Much of my work is centered on gender and sexuality, so Bordo’s book has influenced me in obvious ways.  But its primary influence on Worshipping Walt was less obvious.  The Male Body is a daring book, a work of true public scholarship, both deep and accessible, mixing high theory and personal history, close reading and witty anecdote.  Bordo’s example liberated me to write something more personal and engaged than I’d done before.

What do you see as the most annoying tendency in contemporary scholarship?

Jargon.  We don’t have to leave the role of public intellectual to Cornel West.  Each of us has a responsibility to bring our scholarly work to the broadest audience possible.  For some, that might mean writing a crossover book that combines scholarship and trade-book appeal.  For others, it might mean writing an op-ed, publishing online, writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education Review, organizing a conference for local high school teachers, talking to community groups.  As students of the humanities, we’re dealing with issues that are relevant to everybody; we need to do a better job of sharing what we’ve learned.

Read Full Post »

Dear hump day hurdlers,

Welcome to the second Lazy Scholar interview, this time with Margot Canaday, Assistant Professor of history at Princeton University. Professor Canaday’s first book, the insightful and inspiring The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth Century America, came out from Princeton University Press last summer. Drawing on a wealth of diverse sources, the book traces the regulation of what would become known as homosexual behavior and “the homosexual” throughout the twentieth century, particularly in the realms of immigration, welfare, and the military. That story still has immense relevance for Americans, gay and straight, today—just read the review of Canaday’s book in The Nation for evidence. (You can read the introduction here. Or if you read just one page, try 53, as Canaday recommends.) Professor Canaday’s new project, if I can use her university bio against her, is an interdisciplinary look at the queer workplace in America. If I could pre-order it on Amazon, I would.

What digital resource do you rely on, or would you recommend?

Law professor Nan Hunter’s blog, “Hunter of Justice: A Blog about Sexuality, Gender, Law, and Culture.”

What non-digital resource would you recommend?

G.T. Kurian, A Historical Guide to the U.S. Government.

What is the best research and/or writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

I’ve been talking a lot with colleagues of late about the difficult problem of the second book (perhaps a struggle that as a profession we should be a bit more vocal about since so many seem to suffer with this one more or less alone. We all knew we needed support groups for writing dissertations, but after that?). So someone recently gave me advice on this that I found really liberating. She said to ignore all the people who tell me to find something “small” and “manageable” for the second project. She said you have to write the kind of book that is *your* kind of book—for the second just like the first. If your kind of book is either “big” or intensely archival, you should do it anyway. This is such a refreshing perspective…one that momentarily released me from my fears that I am not sufficiently strategic.

What advice would you give someone working on their dissertation?

Selecting a dissertation topic might be the most important intellectual and professional decision you will ever make. So do it carefully. And not *before* you arrive at graduate school.

Name one book or article published before 1970 that has inspired or haunted you?

Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom. (Okay, it’s 1975).

Name the last book or article you read to inspire or haunt you.

Nancy MacLean, Freedom is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace. It has inspired rather than haunted. A truly astonishing piece of scholarship.

What website most often draws your attention away from work?

I definitely passed through the standard Facebook phases: 1) fear; 2) fascination; 3) fatigue. I now go days, even weeks, without looking at it. So right now the website that more often draws my attention away from work is “The Slatest.” It makes me feel a lot better about myself on the days I can’t manage to read the paper.

What do you see as the most annoying tendency in contemporary scholarship?

I think there is currently too much pressure exerted on even first time authors to write books that are commercially successful beyond the academy.

Read Full Post »

Dear diligent-ish followers,

Today marks the premiere of a semi-regular feature in these pages: the Lazy Scholar Interview. Each entry asks scholars of American culture a series of questions about the books, resources, and trends that inspire, excite, distract, or vex them—often at the same time.

With that flourish, I’m pleased to introduce the first scholar under scrutiny: Tania Modleski, Professor of English at University of Southern California. Professor Modleski may be best known for her 1982 book,  Loving With a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women, which brilliantly re-reads harlequin romances and soap operas through feminist and psychoanalytic theory, with an index ranging from Adorno to The Young and the Restless. She followed that book up with The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory; Feminism Without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist” Age; and Old Wives’ Tales: Feminist Re-visions of Film and Other Fictions, among many other works.

Her essay, “Clint Eastwood and Male Weepies,” featured in the latest issue of American Literary History, offers a glimpse at her newest project. Nimbly connecting Million Dollar Baby and Freud’s theory of melancholia, the article looks at the manly melodrama—in Modleski’s words, “those movies featuring a strong, stoic type whose sorrow lurks under the surface but who is wept over by other characters and by the audience.”

What digital resources do you rely on, or would you recommend?
Still a neophyte in online research.  But OED online comes in handy.

What is the best research and/or writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
I can’t remember the best, but I do remember the worst—from a senior colleague who advised me to go with a tiny press that was interested in publishing my dissertation as a book.  The book’s title became Loving With a Vengeance. When it came time for tenure, some faculty questioned the worth of a book not published with a major press.  The senior colleague who advised me to go with the small press, “The Shoe String Press” (the name says it all), asked me at tenure time why I didn’t go with a larger press—apparently she had forgotten her earlier advice.  I was devastated.  I don’t mean this anecdote to reflect badly on The Shoe String Press, which was very good to me within the limits of its ability to market the book.

What advice would you give someone working on their dissertation?
Choose a topic that you love, love, love.  It’s better to write a good book on a subject you are passionate about than a mediocre book tailored primarily for the job market.

How does your teaching connect to your research?
I often teach the works I write about at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.  Of course, at the graduate level the students are also required to read a great deal of theory.

Name one book or article published before 1970 that has inspired or haunted you?
The Golden Notebook, a novel by Doris Lessing published in 1962, inspired a generation of women.  For me personally, it provoked such rage against men that I had to break up with someone after continually pointing out how he acted just like Lessing’s male characters.  I do not teach this novel, however, because I would be in danger of flunking my male students.

Name the last book or article you read to inspire or haunt you.
It was published a while ago, but as my recent article shows, the book that has most inspired me is Juliana Schiesari’s The Gendering of Melancholia. It’s a book about how male loss is dealt with in literature (it also applies to films) in a way that elevates men’s pathos at the expense of  women and minorities whose grief is appropriated by the male melancholic.  The very term “melancholy” has a grandeur about it which is denied women, whose sorrows are generally written off as mere “depression.”  Schiesari’s work has been and will continue to be influential in my writing about such figures as Clint Eastwood.

What website most often draws your attention away from work?
Oh, okay, I’ll confess:  “Television Without Pity” and “Eight Letters in Search of a Word.”

What do you see as the most annoying tendency in contemporary scholarship?
What has long annoyed me is the tendency of popular-culture scholars to use  terms like “progressive” or “regressive.”  As I wrote long ago, I  think we should not (or not simply) seek to justify any cultural text we happen to be fans of (romances, tv shows, etc.) in terms of our own politics—feminist, Marxist, or what have you.  There is often a faulty syllogism at work in cultural criticism that goes something like this:  I enjoy The Real Housewives of New Jersey; I am a feminist; therefore the program must be feminist).  Better to admit we are all cultural dupes rather than to say that no one is a cultural dupe.

Read Full Post »