On Resistance to Better Academic Writing

A recent Facebook post by John Sloop asked why academic writing isn’t better–more creative, more varied, more polished. This has been on my mind lately, as I spent a month in March with the copyedits to Diminished Faculties. On one hand, the book is very intentionally academic. With A Political Phenomenology of Impairment as a subtitle, you’re not going to get an airport bestseller. On the other, I view copyedits for books as the time to really refine the writing; to make it as “good” as possible. “Good” in this case means didactic–getting my point across. It also means avoiding cliches, using purposeful metaphors (and a lot of them), having good “hooks” going in and out of chapters, and moving the stories along. But “good” also involves undoing some of my writerly tics–I have a bit too much love for the em-dash and the parenthetical phrase. And some sentences just had words in there that didn’t add anything to the sentence. I was probably typing and thinking at the same time. It happens.

So for me, this meant going through the copyeditor’s query, farming out a fresh read to an RA who hadn’t read the manuscript before, and then rereading the whole thing myself slowly and critically, editing vigorously based on these three reads (the copyeditor, my RA, me) and rewriting some stuff. I also have stylistic goals of clarity and active voice whenever possible. Basically, I would like to write like a midcentury American pragmatist who also has a sense of humour, and who has sometimes enjoyed hallucinogens. This has occasionally gotten me into trouble–one journal editor rewrote a bunch of my sentences to passive voice to make it sound more “sophisticated.” I fought back, but there are definitely things in that article I would change.

I don’t always go through this process with book chapters and journal articles. I wish I did, but it just doesn’t work out in terms of time. You often get copyedits or page proofs without copyedits back on a very short timeline. Which I suspect is one reason a lot of other people’s academic writing is unnecessarily unpleasant to read (and there are some zingers in things I have published, too).* Some of it is simply time-crunch and that style is not a priority in a lot of cases. Trade press editors edit for style and focus; academic presses do not offer that service (though I have had good advice from my editors).

And then there is gatekeeping. Journal articles are more heavily policed than chapters in edited books, which are more heavily policed than monograph books are. In a way, I am most free in my book writing, which is why I aim to be doing more of it versus other kinds of academic writing.

Well-written books that don’t conform to academic style are actually very attractive to university presses–they sell better. But it is also much easier to get a book contract if you have already published an academic book. It’s really tough for first time authors, especially in fields that don’t sell that well.

Also, some fields are more stylistically conservative than others. In my experience, African American studies is wide open right now stylistically, rhetorical studies when I was close to it was very concerned with policing its borders, but so is history (a field where there is tons of crossover potential). Sometimes it’s also ignorance: someone who’s never read ethnography will call it “anecdotal” (this has happened to me multiple times with reviewers of anthologies where I had a chapter). So imagine what auto theory or research-creation must look like to them. 

It’s incumbent on us tenured profs to sit on committees and review tenure cases and explain stuff to committees. This is a big part of my practice and I think we all–especially full professors–need to pitch in and be intentional about whose cases we are supporting and why.

Also, different people want different things out of their writing. Several years ago there was a big push towards multimodal publishing in the digital humanities, but we quickly learned that most emerging scholars in the field wanted to publish more traditionally because they didn’t have the extra energy or resources for more experimental formats, nor did they have tolerance for additional potential career risk.*

Writing style is a different thing, and I’ve made it a cornerstone of my graduate seminar pedagogy. We do better when we recognize scholars, including ourselves, as writers, and pay careful attention to the craft.

*I am not arguing against difficulty; difficult prose is fine if the author is in command of it and the difficulty serves a purpose.

**They were also right: an alarming number of digital humanities projects from the 2010s are no longer available in any format. At least we know how to preserve books.

Locked Down Reviews: Godzilla vs Kong

So for Carrie’s birthday we watched Kong vs Godzilla mainly (I think) because it is a movie I would agree to on no other night of the year.

These are my observations. Some mild spoilers are involved.

1. CGI still sucks. I seem to prefer puppets (see: Yoda, baby.)

2. Since apes are closer to humans than lizards, you’re supposed to empathize with Kong. He’s got a friend, after all, and facial expressions. But Godzilla has a few things going for him. First, he’s got a really nice smile. Second, he has a pleasant blue glow that’s reminiscent of old monster movies or a properly trimmed blue LED and not one of those eye-searing ones. Third, he likes to swim. Fourth, he has coherent motivations, which cannot be said of Kong.

3. Which brings us to our main plot device, humankind’s hubris. Except it’s really a shitty tech-bro version where they want to replace Godzilla with a robot that looks like a shittier CGI Godzilla with no smile, but has a WAY bigger carbon footprint, and needs a secret human inside it to work plus a bunch of underemployed secret humans offscreen. This isn’t even an allegory, this is exactly how artificial intelligence actually works. So Godzilla shows up at the beginning of the movie evidently to wreak havoc after being a “good guy” in the last movie (I did not see the last movie, but Carrie filled in a few details), but only blowing up a company called Apex Cybernetics. The plot hadn’t even started, but I’m thinking “let’s see, a lizard with nice smile and a pleasant blue glow blows up a company called Apex Cybernetics. I’m rooting for the lizard.”

4. Despite being several stories tall, Kong has the genital specificity of a Ken doll but they keep calling Kong “him.” I don’t know if this is meant as an illustration of Roland Barthes’ concept of exscription or Hollywood’s inability to do gender fluidity right.

More Locked Down TV Reviews

It’s been a year. My god we’ve watched a lot of television. Here are some short reviews in no particular order. My taste barely makes sense to me, so your mileage may vary. Carrie won’t watch cringe comedy, so we have missed out on some stuff that other people really like.

Superman & Lois: It’s hard to maintain work-life balance when you’re a superhero and a star reporter with two teenagers.

Yellowstone: It’s hard to maintain control of an obscenely large ranch and the land on which it sits, especially as a white settler.

The Reagans: Absolutely amazing documentary. Convinced me that no matter how much I hate Trump, Reagan actually did more damage to the U.S. and the world, and he did it while smiling. Ron Jr. is the star, though.

Star Trek Discovery: now outside the canon storyline. Still awesome.

The Expanse Season 6: Probably the best new sci fi right now.

The Vow: extremely disturbing but also gripping. Cults are bad. Also somewhere in here there’s a parable about mediocre white manhood and corporate jargon.

Blown Away: blown glass is extremely telegenic. Standard reality TV gamedoc.

It’s a Sin: a little over the top, but a show about the AIDS pandemic is very apropos right now. Also a good reminder of the cost of being queer before the present moment.

Resident Alien: fish out of water comedy about an alien crashing to earth. The first few episodes are occasionally hilarious, as the main character–played by a voice actor–tries and fails to be human. Then it settles into pretty standard ensemble drama and is less funny.

Nashville: It’s hard being a successful — or unsuccessful — country singer. Delectable soap opera. The music for the first season was also great, but it took a dive after T Bone Burnett left the show and they started trying to hawk hits.

Party Down: stands up well to a rewatch

The 2020 NFL Season: Meh. It’s better with friends.

The Circus: I mentioned this in an earlier entry. It’s been really good.

Brockmire: A comedy about baseball and addiction. It is very dark, very obscene, and the last season is brilliant and surreal (apparently fans of the show didn’t like it).

Wandavision: Did I mention that I am sick of superhero narratives? This one I loved because of what they did with genre. Last episode was kind of meh, though.

The Mandalorian: Baby. Yoda. Carrie liked all the Star Wars stuff but I was basically in it for the puppet and the frog.

Flak: another comedy about addiction, but this time in the PR business. Carrie says “supposed to be funny but it wasn’t.” We watched it all anyway.

The Bureau: French intelligence workplace drama. Everything goes to shit right away.

The Capture: British surveillance drama.

Treadstone: Jason Bourne goes to television.

Jack Ryan: Carrie says “it was terrible but I had to watch it.”

Comrade Detective: set in Romania, “a gritty buddy cop show” that’s a wonderful and occasionally hilarious mirror on American detective TV bullshit.

Hannah Season 2: Not as good as season one but good enough.

Good Girls: It’s hard being a suburban housewife who also deal drugs in Detroit.

Never Have I Ever: Hilarious teen high school drama.

There are many more, but this will do for now.

Pot Beans, Or: Is this now also a food blog?

Because of the general shitness of internet recipe blogs, all food entries will begin with a link like this:

I just want the damn recipe.

So, about food. Among other things, my drugs have profoundly affected my diet. When we can start eating out again, I am going to be even less fun than before. I can’t do much of anything fried, and I am pretty much functionally vegan now. I’m not actually vegan because some animal products I can still eat, but many, like cow cheese, don’t agree with me at all while on the drugs. In future instalments, I’ll post some of the old recipes for those who want to try them.

The lack of all things cheese, combined with lockdown, has led to extensive experimentation in the Rentschler-Sterne kitchen. And, like many people, we find we are working longer hours during the academic term, so it has led to Very Large Recipes that are scalable, reheat well, and can be combined with other things.

This brings us to pot beans.

Pot beans are beans cooked in a pot for a long time. After that, there are infinite variations. The keys to good pot beans are: good beans, flavouring the broth with something good (some beans just make better broth), and giving them lots of time to cook. They are invariably better the second day and they taste good for at least a week (we’ve never needed more than a week to eat them). They freeze well, they combine well with other things, they can be a meal in themselves, the centrepiece of a meal, or a side dish, as you like.

Let’s break this down into its components:

  1. Beans. Perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “this is a stupid dish to make, I will have horrible, face-melting gas if I eat this many beans.” It’s possible you will. But most people use crap beans, which makes everything worse. Most of the dry beans you get at the corner shop or supermarket are very old and have been sitting for a long time. You are better off buying from a place where there is high-dry-bean-turnover, like a co-op, natural food store, etc. Buying organic is also a good bet. Now here’s an embarrassing confession: we order beans from Rancho Gordo. I am not proud of this fact. They are stupid expensive for beans. There are probably good local sources to track down. But what you get when you order from them is a) an assurance that the bean hasn’t been sitting on a shelf for two years and b) advice — they actually note which of their beans make good pot beans. Their beans cook faster, do not need to be soaked overnight, and do not produce much gas in my digestive system, which in many other ways has anger management issues. YMMV on the gas though.
  2. Flavouring. You want a combination of aromatics, herbs and spices, and herbs. For aromatics, I use onion, celery, carrot, garlic, pretty consistently. I cut them small enough that they are in the spoon with beans and liquid when you are eating it. For herbs, I use whatever is available and seems like it would go together. I’ve learned a few things: I’ve tried sautéing the vegetables to “bring out the flavour” before putting them in the pot. This does not seem to matter at all in any way I can detect. For the herbs and spices (and garlic), I like to make a bouquet garni, where you wrap a bunch of herbs in cheesecloth and tie it up with kitchen twine. Like this: green herbs and roasted spices sit on cheeseclothThis has the advantage of relieving me of the work of taking them off their stalks, and also means I can use parts of the plant I might not otherwise, like the stems of parsley or coriander. I explain how to make a bouquet garni in the recipe. I also like to make them somewhat salty, but leave the salt for the very end, and as my mom says, remember that you can’t take it out.
  3. Quantities and consistency. Our pot beans are basically bean soup, so I go with 6 cups of water for 1 cup of beans. You can use less water but you may need to add more during cooking. We have a ginormous pot and do not want to make dinner most weeknights (Carrie’s teaching two new preps this term so it’s mostly my job anyway), so we generally start with 3 cups beans, 18 cups water (THAAAAAT’S RIGHT IT’S A BIG POT!), 3 celery stalks, several carrots, a large onion, 4 cloves of garlic.
  4. I boil the water in my tea kettle 6 cups at a time. I wash the beans and make sure there’s no dirt, then put them in the pot. I chop the vegetables and dump them in, make the bouquet garni and put it in, and add the water as it gets hot. Then I turn the stove on high heat, get the whole thing boiling, then drop it to low for a simmer and come back in several hours. I have taken to assembling the beans while lunch (usually some other leftover) reheats, which means it takes almost no time. We run the exhaust fan but the whole apartment smells amazing. Hours later, when the beans are good and soft, add salt. The amount varies — we do 1/2 tablespoon at a time. I like them salty but I am also constantly dehydrated. In cold weather, we just leave the beans in their pot and store them out on the porch (this may not work for you and may lead you to not want to make something with 18 cups of liquid in it).

We have served them with roasted vegetables, or with fresh-baked no-knead bread, or as a side for veggie sausages, or with a salad.

Confession: you can skip the bouquet garni. They are still delicious. But then add the garlic to the pot.

Probably up next: adventures in sambar.

Some good cancer news and hospital gossip

Just got the results of my CT scan yesterday, and there is no progression of disease–the spots are just hanging out in my lungs. That was the plan and it’s working. The tumour marker in my blood is also dropping. Also good news. I’ll be reducing my frequency of visits to once every six weeks–not sure if that’s because of the extra virulent Covid strains or because I’m being triaged down a tiny bit, but I’ll take it. Next scan is in six months, and again we will be hoping for no change in the spots.

In not-new side effects news, the big attention-getter the last few weeks, aside from ever-present fatigue, is difficulty regulating my body temperature. I go to bed roasting hot, wake up in the middle of the night freezing cold, and have a hard time getting warmed up or cooled off, as needed. Plus I’m so out of it when I wake up it takes awhile to figure out that I’m shivering. I’ve now got a bin next to the bed with a heating pad, hoodie, extra socks, and sweats, and we’ve got flannel sheets and a gazillion blankets on the bed that I can take off or put on as needed. And sometimes that’s not enough. It’s the best I’ve figured out so far. My doctor thinks it’s not related to the meds, but the people on my Facebook group think otherwise. Someone recommended “a big British hot water bottle” but I have not found a source for such a thing here. Another option is electric blanket. I literally have no idea what the room temperature is half the time.

Speaking of the people on my Facebook group: it’s a pretty consistent set of discussions as new people show up with the same questions over and over, and regulars tell their stories of disease or treatment progression. Sometimes someone dies, as you’d expect. But for the first time since I joined, this week, there was a “how long have you been living with metastatic thyroid cancer?” thread. At first is was the usual 10-20 year horizon. Then one badass woman chimes in that she’d been living with it for 53 years! Obviously, there’s no telling for any one case how it will turn out, but that certainly a longer horizon than I’d ever seen. Sure, it’s the “good cancer”* but stage IV is stage IV.

In other news: my doctor got Covid. He’s incredibly buff. Like extreme sports for fun buff. He was careful but works in a hospital, so the chance for even a tiny slip or bad luck is much higher. He said he had a fever for 11 days and hadn’t been that sick since he was a child. He says he’s feeling better now. But Covid is serious shit. Two of my friends also got it while being very careful. People: try not to get Covid!

I’ve only done two slightly “high risk” activities (for me) in the past few months: 1) I went to the optometrist to get set up for computer glasses because my neck is killing me. It was fine for store behaviour, but some of the other customers were not as careful about 2 meters as I would have liked, I was in there longer than I wanted to be. If I have to sit and wait again, I’ll probably go stand outside. 2) And the CT scan also felt a bit dicey. People weren’t really able to be fully 2 meters apart; everyone has to briefly take off their mask to drink the three servings of the not especially delicious chalky drink that they give you; and occasionally someone is wheeled in on a stretcher who does not have any mask on at all. All the staff are super careful, but it is a non-optimal situation. I’ve been wearing a KN-95 mask or that and a cloth mask over it, but still, it’s weird to feel that such basic activities are in some sense dangerous.

*Fuck that “good cancer” bullshit and, as always, fuck cancer.

Three Defence Strategies for Living at Work

This is written by an academic for academics, but maybe it’s useful for others. Tl;dr, here they are:

  1. Only have work email on your work computer and keep it in one place in your home. If you have other devices, keep it off them.
  2. Order your off hours.
  3. Have Zoom free workdays.

Sometime in the summer when it was possible to see people in person outdoors, my friend Derek (quoting someone else) said we academics are not working from home. We are living at work. I found it a profound and generative realization. Now as the year has gone on, despite the fact that I love most parts of my job, I have been feeling a bit more violated by the combination of confinement and specific demands on me. So I’ve built some separation from work through other means. It seems to be helping.

  1. Like many academics, in addition to my computer, I also have a phone and iPad. Those other devices used to have my McGill email on them, though I would shut it down for vacations. I did that for winter break, and I just…kept….going. So when it’s 9:30 at night and I’m watching a dumb show, and my mind wanders, and I scroll the internet, I don’t accidentally see anything for my job. The computer pretty much lives on my desk (though it’s a laptop so it can leave if it has to). That means work emails get dealt with in one place.
  2. I also have structured off days and times. I think parents already do this (though they also need downtime of their own). But not having kids, all time is potential work time, which is not good. I’ve been losing half a day to a day per week this term to fatigue or medical appointments or something else, but I only “make up” the stuff I have to make up; and I always make sure to have 1 day on the weekend where no “work work” gets done.
  3. Back in the “before,” research university profs like me were not constantly always available for meetings. We had days blocked off for working from home and days for being on campus (note: other people used their offices differently–this is just me). Maybe you’d take a phone call or something but there was a big difference between on-campus and off-campus days, and the off-campus days with longer stretches of unbroken time are super important for writing, course prep, grading, and letters of rec (among other things). Carrie installed Zoom-free days in the fall, and I followed.

Not everyone can do each of these things, but since I can, I’ve tried them, and they are helping a bit.

Sleepytime New Year

Here we are in 2021. I inaugurated the New Year in bed, reading. At one point, I checked the clock, it said 12:04, I rolled over and went to sleep and woke up 10.5 hours later.

Another month, another cancer update: blood are stable, side effects are basically stable, except holy shit am I tired. I think I felt like this at the end of last fall too, so it’s not a big shocker or anything. But the way the drugs multiply my fatigue and sometimes end my days when I don’t want them to is my current biggest complaint. The hand pain no doubt contributes to it some days as well.

My 2020 was better than lots of people’s. My main affects were horror at the state of the world and gratitude for my relative privilege given what things could be like. Sometimes I was angry. Sometimes I was happy. I know people who have had people close to them die of Covid–but I’ve been lucky that way. I have plenty of friends and acquaintances who lost jobs, job opportunities, or other access to income because of Covid. It fucking sucks.

I am fortunate. I have a steady job and income, good healthcare, the ability to properly socially distance, and a good home life with Carrie and the cats. Given the alternatives, I was glad to be teaching online, and all things considered it went as well as I could have hoped for. I also learned some new skills, producing at time 2 podcasts a week for my students. I’ve been giving the old landline a good workout, and it gets me into a comfy chair, usually near a cat, and away from the screen. The other thing I got good at it not working at designated times. I took days off because I needed to for both physical and mental health. That is a skill I’ve been developing over time, but Covid forced me to really build proper boundaries around my time, lest I always be available for everything, while simultaneously trapped in my (admittedly, very comfortable) apartment.

The downsides are predictable: I miss lots of things about being able to go out in the world — friends, playing music with my two pre-pandemic bands, shopping in the neighbourhood, etc. As an academic I have lots of experience working from home but working entirely from home definitely is not for me — there were more than a few times where I felt like things were invading my domestic space that I would normally keep outside it. Boundaries are good, it turns out.

I do worry about the world that we will re-enter at the end of the pandemic, though. Not because of the “everything has changed” but because of the insufficiency of our institutions and relationships. More on that another time.

My resolution for 2020 was to “press record” more and while I did, I didn’t do it as much as I planned. It was a good musical and audio year, though. I am continuing to improve at touch guitar and synthesizer programming and after all the podcasting I am very fast in Logic. Due to Covid, Carrie and I have formed a duo and are slowly writing some songs. We have 4 fully arranged and fragments of a couple more. We had originally thought we’d try and self-record an EP over break but came to our senses and chose downtime instead, which is what I needed.

I don’t make resolutions about my academic work because I have a setup that works for me and I mostly just do it. I was on sabbatical in the winter and spring, and while I lost research and presentation travel that I badly wanted to do, but after the obligatory couple weeks going “holy shit” about the lockdown like everyone else, I realized I had a job to do, and did it. I read a lot, and finished revisions on Diminished Faculties, which should be out in fall 2021. I redesigned three courses as well. Not bad at all.

My main resolution for 2021 is to keep my music space relatively clutter free, which is to say, “ready to cook” at all times. I often write amidst piles of books and papers, and that’s productive for me, but clutter interferes with music differently when I’m working with complex setups of modules or pedals. Especially because the synth lives on a table, there were times where stuff piled up and that that kept me from playing because I’d have to clean up first. I have to treat it more like the kitchen.

I would also really like to find a writing collective to be part of again. I co-write with people all the time and love it, but I’m thinking of something like Bad Subjects where there’s an online venue (other than this blog) where I can post occasional thoughts that are substantial but not long and not necessarily scholarly. Something like The Battleground or Crooked Timber or a group blog of some sort. That said, I am not going to push it. I have to find the right people and the right organization.

Other than that, I just want to keep doing what I’m doing. I have a fantasy that I’ll get the vaccine in May and then can take most of the summer off (except for talks I agreed to give) to savour being in the world, something I haven’t done since 10th grade. Dunno how realistic it is, but a man can dream.