Monday, March 28, 2011

Late to the party: On William Cronon

I know, I know: the bullying, counterproductive, and essentially indefensible political intimidation of one William Cronon began last week.  My blogging colleagues, especially some far better-known than I, have even been commenting on the developing skirmish for days now.  Cronon himself – no slouch at either close reading or carefully measured prose, from my brief skim of his shiny new blog – looks more than ready for this fight.  No one, on the wider disciplinary or interdisciplinary level, knows who the hell I am, and I know that no one who cares about this sort of thing hasn't already read about it elsewhere.  I'm pretty much the ranting late-night cable-television crazy of the academic blogosphere.

But my ego somehow remains oversized, even after the drubbing it took courtesy of the job market this past week.  I have a voice, I have an informed point of view (I hope so, anyway), and I feel like I have an obligation to echo what my eloquent colleagues have already stated.  I'm not eloquent, though, so I'll just spit it out: the Wisconsin GOP is trying to carry out a political hit on Cronon.  It's disgusting and indefensible politics, of which Republicans ought to be ashamed if they really believe in individual freedom, small government, or any of the thinking that undergirds the Bill of Rights.  I have little doubt that Cronon will be forced to comply with the FOIA request, which is, after all, legal.  But I also have little doubt that Cronon, who already knows this better than anyone, will treat this as the sucker-punch that starts a brawl.  He's going to make the GOP character assassins look
  • foolish at best;
  • pretty damn stupid, more likely than not;
  • and materially corrupt at worst.  (Long odds on this one, I admit.)
In fact, I'm counting on him to do so.  We academics committed to free intellectual inquiry, to say nothing of public intellectual engagement, need him to do so.  The implications of this political bullying, if left unchallenged and unchecked, are pretty dire for us.  Politicians – the GOP in this case, but let's not kid ourselves that a single political party holds a monopoly on dirty, unethical, or counterproductive tactics – cannot be allowed to believe that they can scare the shit out of people who legally and legitimately critique, question, and challenge the wisdom of those politicians' actions. 

And yeah, it's a little trite, but I don't mind trotting out my constant counter-example of Research Country.  RC is most emphatically not the United States: it has never experienced a time when responsive representative democracy or full freedom of political speech were respected, or even attempted.  This makes RC an imperfect comparison, which I acknowledge freely.  That said, I can tell you a shit-ton about the pernicious effects of political witch hunts on higher education, not only for the unfortunate targets but also for the larger institutions, and for the students who find their educations compromised by political forces that would prefer not to have intelligent analysts even allowed to present canned facts to lecture classes.  Political oppression is only one of the ills that plagues RC's universities, sad to say, but it's one of the most insidious and widespread, even in the fanciest institution here that likes to pretend that it can rise above the politically crippled mediocrity that most of RC's higher education has come to be.

I am comforted to think that the Wisconsin GOP seems to have awakened a sleeping giant.  Or, at least, unwisely sucker-punched a skillful bar brawler.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Trying to be stoic

My leading job prospect for this year – the one that flew me in, at considerable expense, for a campus visit – has formally turned me down.  They let me down easy, but a no is a no.  Now there's nothing for me to do but press on with what few new job applications may come, and continue doing my research to make myself a more attractive candidate for next year's job cycle. 

I really felt like I gave my best shot at this gig; aside from niggling random worries, I can't think of anything I could have done better.  Maybe some things could have been better about me, but I did the best I could with what I had.  It was hard not to feel a little that the willingness to spend unusual coin on my airfare, as well as my warm interactions with the faculty and staff, were positive signs.  I never felt that I had the job in the bag, but I really hoped that I might, and just couldn't recognize it. 

My self-pity is tempered by the knowledge that a lot of academics, including a few who read and comment on this blog, have endured years of essentially luckless job hunting before they got anything.  I guess I have to resign myself to the reality that I'm only at the beginning of 'the lean years'.

Meanwhile, as I often do when I hit setbacks like this that fall somewhere short of tragic, I recall what Abraham Lincoln said when someone asked how he felt about losing the US senate election to Stephen Douglas: "I am like the boy who stubbed his toe: too big to cry, and too hurt to laugh."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tax time

Holy hell, would someone please tell me how to file my taxes this year?  For so many years, I had a very simple and predictable mode of filing: list minuscule earnings for the year, take the lifetime learning credit, calculate and send.  Now that I'm not in grad school any longer, and have earned income from several different sources after graduating (some academic, some not), I have no idea how to maximize my refund, or at least minimize my debt.  Can someone who has recently been in the same position give me any tips on which forms I should be filing, and why?  I'm particularly concerned about how to write up my postdoc in a way that makes clear that this is an academic fellowship and not, say, just a wad of money.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Restless and mojo-less

I've been trying to write all day, and somehow I got off on the wrong foot for it.  I think I've written perhaps a page and a half total today, which I suppose is better than nothing, but it doesn't feel like much result for all the effort – if effort truly is the word for it – that I put in today.  I'm feeling grouchy because I noticed a few days ago that an edited volume that came out within the last two years touches upon some issues that I hoped I would be the very special little snowflake first scholar to raise.  This is particularly galling, since I haven't yet had a chance to read the book, and the writing I've been banging my head against of late is twofold: the book manuscript, and the book prospectus.  I can't very well submit a prospectus, with its obligation to explain how the book will fit into the existing literature on a subject, without knowing about the existing literature on the subject.  Unless I want to look like a damn fool, anyway.

Coming back to Research City, with all its strangeness and upended status quo, has clearly thrown me off my usual habits.  A few days ago, when I had a burst of productivity and put down four pages in a single day, I didn't worry about that.  But now that I have noticed the days of desert-like quiet upon my keyboard that tend to come before and after such an anomaly, it's bugging me.  I think I need to re-establish the writing routine that saw me through my dissertation, and which I only haphazardly tried to recreate in more recent times.  I need to wake up, get the coffee brewing, and sit down without logging on to the motherfucking internet and write for an hour or two, before I become fully aware of everything in the world that makes me feel small, helpless and defeated.  (I've almost reached the point at which merely turning on the news for a few minutes has that effect on me, so it might be good for my mental health as well as my career to turn away from all that early in the day.) 

Maybe, instead of trying to squeeze out another paragraph or two tonight, I should just pour myself a drink, relax for a bit, and then turn in early, so I can start recovering my mojo tomorrow morning.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

In for a penny, in for a pound

Now that I'm back in Research City, I have no intention of leaving again until my postdoc finishes.  This is what I tell myself whenever I feel a twinge of fear from watching the news, reading the news, or, as occasionally happens lately, witnessing the news occurring.  One can only evacuate so many times in a season, right?  The fact that my fellowship is still going on at all, and that I'm able to live in my apartment and move around my neighborhood at will is enough all by itself to make being here worthwhile.  Even if other parts of town were intermittently too dangerous to venture into from time to time – and that really isn't true for me as yet – I could always hole up right here, concentrate on writing, and still do something valuable for my professional development.  It'll take more than, um, a number of violent deaths and hints of more serious violence to come to make me up and go.  Especially when I just re-stocked my liquor cabinet at duty-free!

Without getting too much into the issues here, there's some genuine nastiness afoot in RC nowadays, and not all of it can be blamed on the bad old regime stirring up trouble.  I'm sure they are, but as any pseudologist worth hir salt can tell you, people do not do what they do solely because malevolent, shadowy forces manipulate them into doing it.  And a lot of people around here, despite their generally sound analytical instincts, are forgetting that fact in their intense desire to pin the blame on the bad guys.  Grimly ironic, considering the divide-and-rule tactics the former government here pursued for decades. 

What I think I'm seeing in RC nowadays is one of the less savory effects of a political revolution: a bunch of not-so-great opinions and prejudices that were repressed from public airing in a number of ways are now being blared aloud, along with the more constructive opinions and ideas.  The line from I, Claudius comes to me: "Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out."  They're hatching, all right.

At present, I think the little voice in my head fretting about a second evacuation is just paranoia.  I already feel cowardly and substandard enough as it is, having evacuated once.  Even so, I'm trying to keep my ear to the ground for hints of a larger wave of violence and anarchy, since those are really the only things that can scare me away.  (Besides total open-ended lack of internet; I'll admit it.)  It's tougher than it used to be: several important news channels that broadcast in RC-ish are currently blocked, or at least aren't getting through to my satellite dish.  That makes me even more dependent on the internet — and I think you can all figure out why that is not necessarily comforting.  But I'm hopeful that this paranoia remains just that, and I can spend the next few months occasionally reminding myself to stay calm while continuing my research unmolested.

And don't even get me started on coffee.  I brew my coffee at home in a French press, and since I returned to RC, there's no goddamn whole coffee to be had here, and there's no ground coffee coarse enough to use in a press.  (For those not in the know, espresso-ground coffee is too fine for the press filter, and ends up clogging it.)  The place near me that sells coffee beans that it can grind to order told me today that they won't have any for sale until the end of the month.  Holy caffeine withdrawal!  I may have to take a taxi out to the other roaster I know of, several miles away, after I call to confirm that they have beans in stock.  Meanwhile, I swallowed my pride and bought a small container of Nescafe to see me through.  Hard times, people. 

On a thematically related note, I notice that the US and its allies are still dithering about how to respond to the mounting violence and flat-out insanity on display over in, uh, Gonzo Country.  While it's hard to watch people struggling to liberate themselves from an oppressive dictator with long odds of success, I at least understand intellectually why not much is happening: in for a penny, in for a pound.  It's not easy to commit to a no-fly zone over GC without implicitly committing to later ground warfare.  Could we do that?  Sure.  But is it a good idea, in the wake of the clusterfucks we made for ourselves in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Maaaaaaaybe not so much.  Unintended consequences have loomed large in those arenas, and now the US is once bitten and twice shy.  (Er, twice bitten and thrice shy?)  The PR effects are hard to gauge, but surely the US government now recognizes – I mean, Christ, they must have picked up on this by now, right? – that they are not playing in the big leagues when it comes to public image work in a big swath of this region, and they tend to let others define the politics for them, and then they play catch-up belatedly and, more often than not, unsuccessfully.  Sending in troops to depose a dictator in a country full of Muslims whose sole major industry is petroleum and whose system of government would have to be re-built from the ground up...well hey, what could possibly go wrong? 

All of this knowledge, of course, doesn't make me feel much better that my country is basically telling a bunch of very brave and very endangered people in GC, "We salute you, we respect you, and you sorry bastards are on your own here.  Lotsa luck!"  The emotional pull of seeing people risk their lives to free themselves from tyranny is, no doubt, part of why an entire wing of the discipline of Pseudology is devoted to intellectually aiding activist movements.  I've never been in that wing, for various reasons, but I certainly understand the impulse at moments like this.  At best, the US is stuck in a no-win PR situation, but those people rising up against their ruler may be trapped in a far worse no-win situation, barring a miracle.

Monday, March 7, 2011

RBOC: Return to Research Country edition

  • It's good to be back in RC.  I feel methodologically and theoretically energized by it, even after just a few days.  (Not least after taking in some of the downtown scenery of Research City!)  I think I was languishing professionally in Evacuation Country, even as I managed to crank out some job-application materials of various sorts.
  • I had an awesome, inspiring conversation yesterday with a very smart and accomplished colleague; I wouldn't at all mind being like hir when I've grown up (more).  By the time we parted company, I felt ready to take things on.  Do things.  Accordingly, this morning, I submitted an article I've been drafting for longer than I'd care to admit to the one of the top-tier Pseudology journals.  I really don't know if it's ready for anything more than a revise-and-resubmit, but fuck it.  Time to dig into this stuff, instead of agonizing over it inside the echo chamber of my head.  If nothing else, it forces me to put that article away with a clear conscience, and focus on the new one I'm drafting now.
  • My crazed, I-am-unstoppable burst of energy was sapped this afternoon when my landlord stopped by to collect the rent, and insisted that I find the money for February's rent, too.  I kinda knew this would happen, but it's still aggravating.  No one paid me for February, I will have you know.  I'd like to blame RC for withholding my money with one hand while demanding I pay up with the other, but that's really not an accurate assessment of the situation.  My money doesn't originate with RC at all, and in any case, I'm pretty sure that my lease contract contains no amnesty for "evacuation in case of revolution."  If I have to, I can pony up the back rent from the money I have in hand, and I can eke it out for the rest of the month, but I'm not happy about that option.  Then again, the mere mention of this complaint is probably going to make Shedding Khawatir's blood pressure shoot up, so maybe I should just heave a sigh and suck it up.  It's rough sledding trying to save money as a newly minted academic.
  • At least, if I can't get my landlord to give up on getting his money – I know, just putting it down in black and white makes it sound totally insane, right? – I can retain the legal authority to ride his ass about the slow-moving repair jobs he should be on top of.
  • It actually makes me feel a bit better to remember that the annoyances of dealing with such logistics may just be the price that I pay for an extraordinarily rare Pseudological opportunity.  My data is going to serve me well, and I suspect that, if I write quickly and effectively, the articles (...and books?) that I turn out will be of more than the usual level of interest to colleagues.  It already seemed to work in my favor for my job talk, although of course that remains to be seen for certain.  I need to start pounding stuff out: strike while the iron is hot, damn it!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Best interview yet

I'm really happy with the way my campus visit went.  Proud, even.  Despite my enormous fears of sounding like an ill-informed fool who would bring shame and ignominy upon the heads of all who considered hiring him, I think I had a great visit pretty much all the way through.  My job talk went great – way better than I even expected! – and earned me good feedback; I made it through an exhaustive series of interviews over the course of several days; and I felt like I actually made friends among the faculty, especially at the candidate dinner.  It all felt very collegial and pleasant.  I want the job so much that it's hard to remember that I have to chill out and forget that the university exists for a while.  A short-list candidate still only has 1:3 odds.

Naturally, being the person I am, I'm also replaying a few moments of the process where I wish I had answered a few things more promptly, or where I wonder if they understood exactly what I meant when discussing some things of heightened political sensitivity.  I felt like I was on the same wavelength with everyone in the moment, but now my grad-school-honed self-doubt and second-guessing skills have come into play.  But one way or another, what's done is done, and I need to focus on the present and the very near future right now.  That by itself is a lot on my plate.