Tuesday, May 31, 2011

50,000 words: the art of the possible

I am being tempted strongly toward what I once considered the dark side: writing an academic book that reads smoothly and accessibly partly because it is deliberately light on theory.  In the midst of my worries that I should be shooting for 100,000 words instead of 50,000, a friend and colleague – call hir Lucifer - confided to me over a beer that zi is going to dedicate hirself this summer to whipping into shape hir first book.  Lucifer plans to keep it to about 50,000 words, which zi guesses will yield a 150-page book.  That, my lovely readers, is very short for a pseudological text.  Not unheard of, mind you, but short.  Lucifer added that zi's thinking of a sexy, flashy kind of title: zi is keenly aware that an easy read with a few theoretical points thrown in for spice makes a great book to assign to college classes.

According to Lucifer, academic presses that deal with pseudology are no longer as interested as they once were in heavy theoretical monographs, but are beginning to think like trade presses about what will read comfortably for large readerships and therefore sell briskly.  I dunno; I can't say I've really followed the business closely enough to hazard my own guess.  Given the way that our discipline has been contracting of late, and how financial pressures in other areas of our professional lives have ratcheted up, this assessment of publishing doesn't sound out of line.

Lucifer suggested that I would be better off focusing on just getting a book under contract soon, and worrying about my major theoretical contribution to the discipline at a later point.  I must admit that I was toying with this idea already.  I must also admit that I am deeply tempted to use Lu's suggestions to structure my own manuscript, if only because I don't see how I can write a coherent book on my current topic much longer than 50,000 words.  It simply won't sustain 100,000 words.  The material is too new, and my theorizations are too early-stage to spin off whole chapters of bullshit about them.  It would be nice to write my 50,000-word manuscript with a clear conscience that that is not only how best to treat the material, but how best to treat the reader.

This is not one of my usual "on the one hand, on the other hand" blog posts.  I honestly do not see any benefit from shooting for 100,000 words with this particular manuscript.  It would be madness: even if I stuffed it with every anecdote that ever happened to me in the field, it would still be a little under that magic number, and it certainly wouldn't read clearly or efficiently.  Maybe my second book (behold my hubris!), which I hope will be a more mature accounting of the phenomena that I'm still tracking right now, will have more room and necessity for a longer treatment, and perhaps that book, then, will be my barbaric yawp of theory that puts me on the map outside the area studies confines of my pseudological subfield.  But my current manuscript cannot serve that purpose, I am beginning to admit to myself.  And if it can't, then there's no good that can come from trying to fool myself and others that it can.

I hope I'm not making a mistake with this line of thought.  I really feel like I'm on the right track.  I've been sketching out some pretty high-theory thoughts about some new research that could go all kinds of twisty-crazy places.  That stuff, I feel, will do much better in a complicated, somewhat heavy treatment that lays out dozens of interconnected phenomena and streams of critical inquiry.  For right now, I need to knock out my manuscript and move on to bigger things when the entry-level book has been put to bed.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Office computer

One of the perks of my new job is that the university will buy me a new computer for my office.  I can't take it with me when I go, but I get to choose which computer to install, out of the choices the IT department offers.  I'm a Mac user, so there's one question asked and answered.  The question of more importance to me is whether I should opt for a desktop or a big notebook computer.  (Those are the only two choices.)  I'm leaning toward the desktop, because the hard drive is humongous (and therefore convenient if I have to transfer some large files around) and the screen is much bigger and easier to read.  For my own purposes, that's not a huge deal, but I figure that large screens make for easier student consultations, when they want to know about their grades and so forth.  My own notebook computer is smaller than anything the IT department would install, so that will probably still be what I would carry around campus with me for presentations.

Is there anything else I should be thinking about?  Have I missed some crucial aspect of the relationship between professor and office computer?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How long is a good academic book?

I'm trying to work this question out as I develop my manuscript.  I had figured that the book shouldn't be any longer than a standard dissertation — although of course not laid out like one!  More or less, my diss is about 10,000 words per chapter, and there are five chapters.  Pretty simple math, right?

On a subtler note, I have heard from more advanced colleagues – i.e., those who have already published a book – that they worried, before or after the fact, about the length of their books.  One of them, who wrote a book so good (I've read it, so I know) that it's still winning awards years after it hit the stores, worries that the book's exposure has been limited by its length, which is a little over 400 pages.  According to hir, this is a bit longer than seems standard to hir, and zi wonders in particular if this longer-than-usual text scared professors away from assigning it to classes.  My colleague is a very astute person, so I assume that this concern is less about missed revenue opportunities – since only The Great Ones can even fantasize about earning serious royalty revenue from an academic publication – than about getting the work out into the world.  Then again, perhaps zi was also concerned with proving to hir press that the book was a worthwhile investment on the editorial board's part.  I dunno.

More recently, though, another colleague, who also wrote a noteworthy book, dismissed this worry of mine about book length as groundless.  (Although hir book was just under 300 pages, which is more of an industry standard, it seems.)  Zi thought less in terms of pages than word count, and suggested I work toward a goal of 100,000 words.  That is fully twice the goal I had already set for myself.  (See my sad little word counter down there on this blog.)

How the blazes do people calculate such matters, anyway?  Obviously, one page of an electronic word processor document, single-spaced or double-spaced, just doesn't lay out like a page of a codex.  With that in mind, perhaps word count really is the more reasonable metric to go by.  And how much does this matter, from the point of view of publishing houses or potential customers?

For that matter, since when do social scientists actually give a shit about concise, elegant prose?  The few pseudologists who write elegantly on a consistent basis seem almost to be fast-tracked to fame just for that.  Our monographs tend to be stuffed with a ton of material that very few of our colleagues actually care about reading, and which most colleagues will simply skim as fast as they can manage while sipping their caffeinated beverage of choice.  Not that I'm planning to write a crap book, but I recognize that whatever skill I have at crafting prose is largely a cherry on top within my field.  But now that I'm daily making my teeth grind by trying to finish the book prospectus, I should probably thresh out my own perspective and goals for this process.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Word processor overload

I do not consider myself a hoarder.  I was kind of like that when I was younger, but now I'm pretty happy tossing stuff when it is no longer useful to me.  Sell it off, give it away to friends, barter it, fling it far away: I like to keep things streamlined and uncluttered.

I have absolutely no excuse, then, for the fact I realized this morning: I think I have five different word processing software programs loaded on my computer now.  Four of them are, in fact, the word processor in a comprehensive office suite.  I have four full office suites in my computer now, plus a fifth word processor that rivals the office suites in MB size.  How did this happen?

When I bought my shiny happy MacBook, it came loaded with iWork, the native office suite that Apple offers with its machines.  I worried, though, that there could arise compatibility issues from emailing documents back and forth to people who use PCs, to say nothing of my own documents' formatting as I made the transition from PC to Mac.  So I bought Microsoft Office for Mac, with the educational discount.  (Without that, I might have shied away, but I can't say that for sure.)  There were two office suites right there within the first week of ownership of the computer.

Then there was the whole matter of how to deal with my material, some of which is written in RC-ian.  (The language of Research Country, of course.)  It's common for me to write field notes with RC-ian speckled through the English text, as well as longer passages at times in pure RC-ian.  As it happens, RC-ian utilizes a completely different writing system than English, which makes Latin characters a rather unsatisfactory vehicle for representing many of the sounds and letters native to RC-ian.  Sometimes it's actually useful to write in Latin characters, so that I can specify exactly how someone pronounced a given word, but more often I prefer to type RC-ian in its native script.  This has been a burden on scholars for years, since computer programming largely developed with the assumption of words being composed of a collection of isolated letters that do not change their shapes and, if need be, can be given equal amounts of space.  (Think of how Courier font looks, and why old typewritten pages look so regimental.  That's monospaced font, there.)  Such an approach is goddamn-near impossible for RC-ian.  It took a while for programmers and designers to catch up to the needs of RC-ian, which not only was never intended for monospaced font, but also – sigh – runs in the opposite direction of Latinate scripts.

Point being, when I switched from PC to Mac, I discovered that Word for Mac (unlike its PC version) has approximately zero RC-ian capability.  How would I even access my field notes without destroying them?  And Pages, the word processor in the iWork suite, wasn't really any better.  I dealt with this by downloading OpenOffice, which has genuine RC-ian capability; thus came my third office suite.  But OpenOffice didn't handle RC-ian mixed with English as well as I wanted and needed, so what was I to do?  I had heard that OpenOffice and NeoOffice were pretty much the same animal, so there didn't seem any point in trying the other one.  In my zeal/craze to find the most robust application for my specific needs, I ended up buying Nisus Writer, which is a super-powerful word processor for an enormous range of alphabetic and ideographic scripts.  (In fact, I downloaded both Nisus and Mellel, another word processor with robust language support, but I discarded Mellel at the end of its trial period.)  Nisus can handle my writing in English while bopping into RC-ian for a phrase or two at a time, and saves documents in a nicely cross-platform format (RTF).  It can also save documents as PDFs, which I have found to be the most durable and stable form for such things.  And lo, it was good.  (And for purely English-language documents, I tried using OpenOffice for a while, but eventually felt it was actually more convenient to use Word, since that's what everyone else had.)

And yet.  Even from the beginning, I noticed that Nisus has a tendency to crash for no fucking reason.  It'll just give me the little pinwheel of death, and then close itself for some "unexpected" reason, losing everything that I typed before I last hit the save button.  This has trained me to save with absurd frequency, like every half-sentence.  It's annoying, but I'm willing to tolerate it for the larger robustness of the program. 

But yesterday, Nisus began its periodic automatic update, and gave me a message that this newest upgrade wasn't free, but would cost me $49.  WTF?  I just bought the goddamn program less than two years ago!  When I looked through their list of the bug fixes incorporated in the new upgrade, and couldn't locate a fix for "crashes for no fucking reason," I balked at paying. 

So last night, I spent an hour downloading a fifth office suite: NeoOffice.  In recent months, I've heard reports that NeoOffice works better and more nimbly than OpenOffice at certain tasks, especially on Macs.  It's also come to my attention during my postdoc that NeoOffice is what Apple sales people here in RC load as standard-issue on Macs they sell to locals, who naturally want good functionality in their native language as well as English and other Latinate-scripted languages.  Even though there's a fully freeware version of NeoOffice, I paid $10 for the newest one, since I wanted as many bugs worked out as possible.  I'm taking the new word processor for a spin today to see what it can do.

Why do I feel like I can't commit to any of these programs fully?  Why the hell do I keep OpenOffice around?  Why must Word be such a pain in the ass about non-Latinate scripts that I have to go all obsessive-compulsive about finding alternative software?  How many goddamn office suites will I end up storing on my computer?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Short-order theory

Now that I can shelve my job app materials for, er, a few months, I can focus on my research again.  Which is good, because in a few days I have to give a lecture to the grant foundation that gave me my postdoc.  The lecture, of course, is on What I Did During My Postdoc.  This has been surprisingly difficult for me, since I'm used to throwing together half-assed bullshit marathons composing lucid talks on relatively short notice.  I've known the date of this talk for many months, but of course, it's supposed to be on stuff that I'm still researching and learning about, stuff that I could not research or learn about until I took up the postdoc.  The upshot is that I've only had about three weeks before the talk in which I could put together something coherent. 

And coherent is starting to seem like the most I could ask for.  It's actually really hard for me to come up with a reasonable theoretical analysis of new pseudological material in this much time.  Theory is a great big beast: sometimes you need to grapple with it, other times you need to just wrangle it to do what you want.  The way pseudology is practiced nowadays, you need a pretty sophisticated apparatus in place if you want to publish, or even be taken seriously by colleagues in conversation.

I think it took me over six months before I even began to develop a coherent theoretical framework for my dissertation.  And that was when I was back in the data-free environs of DOU-Town, nowhere near my field site.  Now, I'm sitting here in Research City, poring over a spread of new data on a – literally! – new subject that has never existed before.  (Ever feel like your research is in a rut?  I recommend experiencing an earth-shattering revolution.  Does wonders for social-science data possibilities.)  I never had to theorize about any of this stuff because it just wasn't there.  Ever.  It's distantly related to some other stuff that came into existence not so very long ago, but only distantly.  It's intimidating to know that I'm going to address a room full of colleagues about this stuff, and that I have to sound smart while doing it.  I'm not a fast cook in the theory kitchen, and now I feel like a theory-laden short-order cook.

Two more days to scribble, and then the order's up.  You want grits or toast on the side, honey?

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Between you and me everyone on the internet who reads this blog, I'd have accepted the job even without the stuff I asked for.  But I got at least a little of that on top of the basics, and I am well pleased.  (Many thanks to everyone who contributed to the consensus that it was worth asking about moving expenses and conference travel!)

I called up the chair of the department today, and accepted the position.  Sent an email about it, too.  I have been hired for my first job as a professor.  What's that word the kids use?  Squeee!  Ah, that's it, right?

I'm gonna go make myself dinner and a drink, and be proud of myself for a little while, yes I am.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The shakes

Predictably, I am now a bundle of nerves.  The minutes tick by without a response to my inquiry to the school, and I have to start getting ready for my interview with the second school.  It's hard to know what to do, since I don't want to come off half-assed in the coming interview, but I'm simply too desperately afraid of disaster to rely on getting the job with the first place until the contract has been inked.  Remember my philosophy: things could go horribly wrong at any time.

I've had moments like this before.  I guess I'm handling this current stress better than those earlier episodes.  But man, it's hard being an anxious basketcase.  Why doesn't the school respond?  Don't they know that I am a very special snowflake whose every passing thought must be attended upon without delay, and the functional center of the universe?  (Whoa, so that's what it feels like to be a college student nowadays!)

On the other end of my craziness spectrum, is it reasonable to hope that perhaps the response is delayed because they're actually looking for money under the couch cushions for my moving expenses?

This is stressing me the fuck out.  I hate bargaining from a position of weakness.  I'm all but literally shaking with fear that I have made a miscalculation by not just jumping on the job and saying, "Please send the contract now!"  And how do I know that my email came across as appropriately enthusiastic?  (I tried to walk that fine line between enthusiasm and irritating bubbliness — you know, the kind of email that overuses exclamation points because the writer feels no confidence in clear prose to communicate emotions or thoughts.)  So many things could go wrong! AAAAaaaaaaaargh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I've said it before, and no doubt I'll say it again: someone slap me across the face.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011



One of the universities I've spoken with in the last few weeks has offered me a one-year VAP that maybe-kinda could be extended for a second year.  This was totally unexpected: I felt like I had screwed up my interview with the school, and I was pretty well shocked to get an email from them that didn't follow the format of:
Dear Dr. Koshary,
Thank you for your interest in this position.  We had a huge number of highly qualified applicants this year, and unfortunately...
You know the rest.

But that's not what I got!  They want me, they want me!

Now, then: aside from wanting to share my good news with my blogging colleagues, I want to get your advice.  I've actually heard more advice about negotiating for t-t jobs than for avowedly temporary VAPs.  Is there much point in trying to negotiate salary, if the sum is named in the job offer email?  Do I have a shot at getting some moving expenses?  I assume that research funding and conference travel is a long shot, since they're hiring me to teach a 4-4 load as replacement faculty.  Should I forget about that altogether, or see if they'll at least kick in for conference travel costs?

From another angle, is there any point in following up on the other jobs that showed interest in me?  The only other serious prospect I seem to have right now is an essentially identical job at another university, for which I have an interview set up next week.  Should I even try to nudge them on timing, or – since I clearly have very little bargaining power as a VAP hire – should I just tell them I must respectfully withdraw my application in light of the offer?  I'm leaning toward doing exactly that, and since I just got the offer email, I figure I have about twenty-four hours within which to figure out my plan of action before the school that wants to hire me starts wondering why the hell I haven't said anything.

Please, if you read this today, respond quickly.  I'm probably going to be celebrating and drunk in about twelve hours, so it would be good to get some advice while I'm sober enough to absorb it and act on it.  :D