Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Looking Back at Year One

This fall marks the start of my second year on the tenure track.  This means that the newest element of my job is that I’m not “new” anymore – I have colleagues starting their first year, and I can answer at least some of the questions they are encountering for the first time.  I know what policies need to go on my syllabus.  I know where to find (most) things, and I’ve met the majority of our English majors.  I even have “repeat offenders,” students who have signed up for a second (or third! or fourth!) course with me.  In many ways, of course, I am still quite new – taking on new course preps and even some committee work while fiercely carving out time in the week to research and write.  As I prepare my materials for initial review, I’ve had space to be reflective about what went well last year, what I wish I’d realized, and what my still-limited experience has taught me already.

Many people with far more experience than me have offered excellent advice for new faculty members, but now that most of us are a month (or more!) into the semester, I thought I would share the best advice I was given in my own first year.  It’s deceptively simple, but perhaps especially important as the rush of mid-semester looms:

You don’t earn tenure in a year.

This is certainly obvious, but I think it bears repeating for many of us who have come off the current market.  Given the overabundance of pieces detailing the humanities in crisis and the dismal outcomes for humanities PhDs, as well as watching beloved friends and colleagues struggle through fear, anxiety, and depression on the market, I think those of us who find ourselves in that shiny new Assistant Professor position are sometimes not quite sure how it happened. When I got my position, I certainly felt relief and joy, but a tiny piece of me was also certain some mistake had been made – I got that elusive tenure-track position?  At an institution I really like?  With supportive colleagues in my department and across the college?  I have to assume I wasn’t – and am not – the only new faculty member to arrive on campus not entirely sure it isn’t all a wild dream of some kind, amazed that it was my name on the office door, on the faculty ID, on the campus parking pass.  I think it’s tempting to feel that you have to continue to prove you deserve the job, even once it’s yours.

But while the tenure clock often feels short, it’s a longer game than it first seems.  So here’s what “you don’t earn tenure in a year” means:

  • No one expects you to have your book in hand, hot off the press by January.  (Unless, of course, it was already at the press before you arrived.  On the other hand, if you successfully get your book in hand by the end of your first semester, PLEASE e-mail me and tell me how you have done this.)
  • No one expects you to know everything.  Your colleagues are aware that you are adjusting to a new institutional context, new students, and a new home.  All of them did it, too.
  •  No one expects you will adjust magically without any hiccups or questions.  Some of them will be small, such as how to fix the copier. Some might be bigger, and that’s okay, too.

The first year – my first year – was exciting, wonderful, exhausting, and overwhelming in turns.  It was usually more than one of those things at once.  You should, as much as you’re able to, enjoy it.  Enjoy meeting your new students, especially majors.  Enjoy the moment when you don’t have to look at the MLA job list the instant it drops.  Perhaps more importantly, be a listening ear and a supportive reader for those who do.  

  • Be strategic.  You’re probably eager to get engaged, and that’s wonderful.  But you can’t do everything – which I have discovered from trying!  Consider how the new commitments you’re taking on fit with your long-term plans.  Run new opportunities by senior colleagues who can help you think through what will move you forward and what will devour your time.
  • Do things on campus.  Go to events, socials, campus theater productions, whatever.  This is the best way to learn the culture, and it can also give you a broad sense of what kinds of cool things are happening on campus.
  •   Meet people.  You need mentors, co-conspirators in your own cohort, and friends.  Your department might assign you a mentor – mine did, and she is marvelous – but find others, as well, including people who aren’t in your home department.  If you can work with your office door open, keep your office door open.  Befriend the department admin.  (Mine likes cookies.)  See if there’s support for research on campus, such as faculty writing groups.  If not, try starting one.
  • Do things off campus.  Sign up for Groupon-like services in your new neighborhood as a way to find restaurants and things to do.  Find your new doctor, gym, salon, and the like.  If things go as you hope, you're going to be living here for a while.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Monuments, memorials, & legacy

During my nine days in London this summer in and around the inestimable NCS Congress, I was strongly reminded that memorials, especially graves, are everywhere.  This realization is not, if you’ll forgive the pun, ground-breaking. Earth is old, and the people who have lived on it have long been concerned about how they will be remembered.  I think I noticed it afresh in part because of the turn my research has been taking: I have been caught up in thinking about memorials and collective memory in Middle English literature over the past year as I reconsider how the dissertation-that-was is slowly morphing into the book-to-be.  

And so: memorials.  I spent part of a day on a pilgrimage of sorts to Southwark Cathedral.  If you haven’t visited, you should – Southwark is a beautiful church, and Karen and I were lucky enough to be there while the organist was practicing.  We explored the church and the gardens and the neighboring market all morning, then returned on Sunday to attend services there.  The point of the trip, though, was to visit an old friend by the name of John Gower, the poet who has been a companion, a comfort, and an occasional aggravation to me since my first semester in graduate school.  (As a sidenote: some of my earliest conference presentations were on Gower’s works, and I spent several months writing a chapter on Gower’s Visio Angliae that never made it into my dissertation.  I find his work beautiful, compelling, powerful, and frustrating, and I return to it often: in fact, this upcoming year, I am working with my first independent study student, who is working on Gower’s Confessio Amantis.)

photo of the author in front of the tomb of John Gower, with three major works serving as pillow for the poet.
Selfie with John Gower: a photo I think many of us working in Middle English literature have taken.

Gower’s tomb is obviously invested in legacy, and it entwines literary and literal afterlives. Gower’s massive pillow, here obscured by my head, is made of his three major works, their names given in Latin.  The inscription again emphasizes Gower’s poetic work: he is described first as a celebrated English poet (“anglorum poeta celeberrimus”) and then as benefactor to the building that houses his tomb.  It seems to me that John Gower gets legacy.  The tomb is trying to do for Gower what the opening lines of the Confessio Amantis seek to do for the work in question, that is, they put Gower’s work into the context of a broader canon: 

 Of hem that writen ous tofore
The bokes duelle, and we therfore
Ben tawht of that was write tho:
Forthi good is that we also
In oure tyme among ous hiere
Do wryte of newe som matiere,
Essampled of these olde wyse,
So that it myhte in such a wyse,
Whan we ben dede and elleswhere,
Beleve to the worldes eere
In tyme comende after this. (Confessio Amantis, Prol.1-11)

The “newe” thing in the reader’s hands thus fits into a perfect lineage: it emerges from old writings, then moves forward to inform “tyme comende.”

Yet what is obscured by this memorial?  Well, to begin with, the rest of Gower’s work: his short Latin and French poetry and the English “In Praise of Peace” go unmemorialized, much as they often go unread.  (Not that there are hordes of medievalists reading the Vox Clamantis or the Speculum Meditantis – unfortunately, I say, but that is perhaps a post for another time.)  The monument to Gower’s work is thus partial, incomplete.  It doesn’t capture the poet’s whole literary corpus – only the works that are themselves monumental.  In fact, it doesn’t contain the poet’s physical corpus, either: the literary present tense means that Gower is always off doing something in the many articles and books written about his literary work.

A monument is a physical construction of history, but it can only be partial.  Monuments require a context, a story: inscriptions are meant to help, but they only take us so far.  Some Middle English literary monuments try to be complete: lengthy inscriptions capture an episode, a prophesy, some nugget of the story.  The past gives the present much-needed context: in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, the grave of Sir Patryse, who dies an untimely death through a poisoned fruit, reads: “Here lyeth sir Patryse of Irelonde, slayne by Sir Pynell le Saveaige that enpoysynde appelis to have slayne Sir Gawayne, and by myssefortune sir Patryse ete one of the applis, and than suddeynly he braste.” Thus, the inscription memorializes Sir Patrick himself, but it also preserves the circumstances of his death.  Further, it emphasizes Guinevere’s innocence in that death for the future readers, since the tomb also includes a description of the trial by combat that proved she was not complicit in the murder (Malory, Works 621, lines 12-20).  While Patryse’s memorial seems to feature quite a lengthy text, other literary monuments prove inaccessible: the “roynyshe” golden writing in St. Erkenwald troubles those gathered at St. Paul’s Cathedral precisely because it cannot be read, though all the physical signs suggest the person this tomb memorializes is important and should be known.  While Sir Patryse’s grave tells the story of his death (if not many details of his life), the judge’s tomb in Erkenwald’s needs a narrative – the writing needs miraculous, posthumous glossing by the very figure it is meant to memorialize.

These monuments, it seems to me, are entangled with writing itself as a medium.  The paradox and the power of the memorial is the same as that of writing: it can’t capture everything.  As the burned manuscript means the medieval document is lost forever, so the misplaced notebook, the to-do list we accidentally wash, and the hard drive crash remind us that "writing it down" is no guarantee of survival. At the same time, sometimes writing preserves too much: debates about Gower’s recensions of the Confessio Amantis are ongoing, and we cannot know which one(s) Gower wanted in circulation. 

While at NCS, I heard R. F. Yeager’s presentation on Gower’s afterlife in Reformation England.  He opened the talk by comparing Gower’s monument to Chaucer’s, and he pointed out that Gower didn’t fare so well: the tomb is now restored, but evidently poor Gower had his nose broken off at one point, among other damages.  Perhaps not so celebrated, then. (Access, too, is an interesting question: As M. W. Bychowski noted in her Facebook reflections post-conference, you can see Gower for free, but visiting Chaucer is a somewhat more costly enterprise.)  Gower’s work long suffered a similar fate: extracts from the Confessio first appeared in the ninth of the Norton Anthology of British Literature, published in 2012.  And yet, this summer I visited Gower’s restored monument, and next year I hope to return to the UK to join colleagues and friends for the fourth International John Gower Society conference, to be held in conjunction with the Early Book Society conference at Durham University.  

Preservation – of books, of reputations, even of monuments – is always at the mercy of other’s judgments and interests, no matter how well we plan for it.

Friday, August 5, 2016

And a new era for In Romaunce begins!

I started this blog several years ago, inspired by an array of exciting public work being done by medievalists on the blogosphere. Since 2010, it has been a space for me to share and test-drive ideas I wasn't ready to pursue in (or that wouldn't fit the generic requirements of) article/chapter/conference paper forms. It has been an integral space for me as grad student, adjunct, and postdoc as a result, and I am so grateful for the support the blog has gotten from all its readers!

Shortly after creating In Romaunce, I started to feel as though the blog would be more generative -- not to mention fun! -- if it had more voices than just my own, and so I asked my good friend Kristi Castleberry if she'd like to become a co-author. I am grateful beyond words that she said yes. I could not have asked for a more generous, insightful, hilarious, and kind co-conspirator. I have had such a fantastic time working with her in this space, and my writing (both here and elsewhere) is so much better because of her friendship and collegial spirit. Transitions like these always bring about some wistfulness, but I know that Kristi and I will be co-conspiring for years to come if not here, then elsewhere!

In the Middle was and is a very special source of inspiration for me, and so I am nothing short of thrilled and delighted to be joining forces with Jeffrey, Karl, Jonathan, and Mary Kate as Blogger #5. But before I officially hoist the sails and head over to ITM, I want to share with all of you some truly exciting news about In Romaunce: it's new blogger!

It is a complete delight to say that Kara McShane -- a dear friend and brilliant colleague -- will now be the co-blogger at In Romaunce. She does fascinating work with Middle English romance, travel writing, medievalism, and the digital humanities, and I cannot wait to see what she writes about here. Please join me in welcoming her!

Kara L. McShane is Assistant Professor of English at Ursinus College, where she specializes in medieval literature and digital humanities.  She received her Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in 2014. Her research interests include Middle English romance and dream vision, travel writing, cultural translation, and digital pedagogy; she is especially interested in the intersections between writing and the vernacular in medieval English culture. 
Her work has appeared in the South Atlantic Review, The Once and Future Classroom, and Studies in Medievalism.  She is presently at work on her first book, tentatively titled Exotic Documents and Vernacular Anxieties in Late Medieval England.  In it, she examines instances of non-English writing across a range of Middle English narratives, arguing that these moments of writing create space for authors to express anxieties about writing as a means of memorialization and about the vernacular as a medium.  The fascination with writing within Middle English literature, she argues, is central to understanding the relationship between language and national identity. 
Kara’s interest in the development of English identity in the Middle Ages has led very naturally to an interest in medievalism, particularly how “the medieval” is deployed to address contemporary social and political issues.  She is the general editor of Visualizing Chaucer, a Robbins Library Digital Project, and has contributed to The Camelot Project.  She also serves as an assistant editor for medievally speaking, an open-access review journal supported by the International Society for the Study of Medievalism.
As “the medievalist” of her department, Kara teaches on all manner of medieval topics.  Recent offerings have included courses on medieval & early modern travel writing, medieval women, and medieval romance. She also teaches a course called Structure of the English Language, which combines advanced grammar and history of English and is quite a lot of fun. 
Kara shares her home and her fascination with all things medieval with her wife Karen, three chinchillas, and a grumpy but very handsome cat named Severus.
Kara, with Gower.