Friday, July 24, 2015

Why aren't literature professors also book collectors?

First US Editions of V. and Ulysses
I am constantly surprised, when I speak to my colleagues who are professors of literature in departments of English, how very few of them are active collectors of books.

Certainly, many English professors are very active accumulators of books: they often have hundreds or thousands of volumes. But despite their passion for books and literature, and often even a professional interest in material textuality, literature professors are only occasionally also collectors. But who else, I always think, is in such a good position to know what sorts of books might be expected to have lasting value? And I guess I also always hope that academics will wish to take an active, personal role in preserving and transmitting our shared literary heritage into the future: of course academic libraries are already doing some of this, but libraries cannot do it all. And every used bookstore we walk into might contain a treasure that deserves to be preserved, and sometimes it will take an expert to recognize such a treasure.

My own experience as a scholar and collector suggests, however, that there may well be other benefits to collecting. One of the formative experiences of my academic life was a 1997 NEH Summer Seminar based at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where there is an outstanding collection of Anglo-Saxon and other medieval manuscripts. Even while attending the seminar, I understood that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity: I was getting a chance to see and handle medieval books that I’d probably never have a reason to ask to see. In the world of truly rare and unique books, of course, one needs a reason, a scholarly project, to justify consulting a particular book, and it is almost impossible to develop a general familiarity with a broad spectrum of things when one is always working on a specific task.

In my current writing project (and in my previous book), I’ve had occasion more than once to refer to books that I’ve come to know not because I would ever have had any reason to consult them in a library, but rather because I’ve collected them. In The Visible Text, I used the copyright page of the first edition of Thomas Pynchon’s V. as an example of a moment where the distinction between text and paratext was undermined for a literary effect. In my recent work for my next book, I have found myself writing about the exceptionally large capital S that begins the text in the American first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. I know these books, and the physical details about them that interest me, because they sit on my own shelves, right in my living room--even on my couch, as in the picture above.
The stately, but not plump, S at the start
of Joyce's Ulysses.

If I hadn’t been a collector, I would never have had any reason to even look at these first editions, much less handle them and become familiar with them. I wouldn’t have ever been able to use them or think about them in relation to my academic work. Being a book collector has given me a far broader experience of books and their texts than my academic training or my academic pursuits alone could have done. Of course not every book I’ve collected will end up playing a role in the academic arguments I make, but that’s precisely the point: I do not know which books I will use until I use them. But I do know that I will probably not use a book I am not at least somewhat familiar with.

Being a collector for me means that ownership is important somehow: not only does owning these books give me a feeling of pleasure and enjoyment, but it gives me knowledge as well. And I guess this is why I am surprised that more literature professors are not also book collectors: because book collecting is a route to at least some sorts of knowledge as surely as is any more traditional academic pursuit.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

1819 Rhyming Geography of the United States

Clark, Victorianus. A Rhyming Geography; Or, a Poetical Description of the United States of America, &c. Hartford: Printed by Peter B. Gleason & Co., 1819.

Sometimes I cannot stop myself from buying a book I know nothing about, just because it seems interesting. Victorianus Clark's Rhyming Geography is one example of that: for what could have possessed someone to put a Geography textbook into rhyming form? How could I not buy it?

From the description of Indiana.
Clark tells us that he has taken the organization, and most of the facts, from Morse's Universal Geography, a standard textbook on the topic. The rhymes, he argues are truly to be memorized by school students, as an aid to their ability to learn the geographical facts, although "No scholar should commit more than eight rhymes in one day" (6).  Sound advice, I should think. Whether the anti-French sentiment betrayed be descriptions of town such as Vincennes, Indiana is Clark's or Morse's I haven't determined, but one can hardly not laugh today to read that

  Vincennes, now the largest town,
  Is fifty leagues up Wabash found:
  *Tho' seat of government, this place,
  *Is peopled by a mongrel race,
  *Of French extraction, mean and base (78)

The lines prefixed by asterisks, the Preface tells us, "are not to be committed to memory" (7).

The descriptions of Ohio, Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania especially caught my eye, as these are places I know fairly well: coal and oil both are prominently mentioned, and those resources continue to dominate our understanding of this region nearly two hundred years later, now.

The Rhyming Geography appears to be somewhat scarce, if not rare: but what a remarkable document of pedagogical thinking, from this early moment in American education.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Mini-Catalogue Monday: Catalogues and Ephemera from Ohio Valley Glass and Pottery Manufacturers

Cambridge Glass, Imperial Glass, and Rookwood Catalogues
I started in the antiques and collectibles business before I could drive, very occasionally buying and selling a piece of glass or pottery that I knew I could make money on. Now I try to focus more on books, of course, but at the intersection between glassware and books there is an interesting category of item: trade catalogues and ephemera from glass and pottery manufacturers.

I always try to pick up such items when I can. Catalogues and brochures are always scarce, and often much scarcer than the glass and pottery they show, and they often provide invaluable illustrations and information for researchers and collectors.
Ca. 1905 Weller Pottery Brochure
showing Eocean items

My Mini-Catalogue 155 includes about 20 items, all from twentieth century glassware and pottery manufacturers in the Ohio Valley, and including trade catalogues, promotion flyers and brochures, price lists, and the like, dating from about 1904 to the mid 1970s. The link above should take you to the pdf catalogue.


Friday, July 17, 2015

My Work Week

This week I am out of the house and writing, part of a month-long marathon of writing, in which I hope to draft most or all of my next academic book. I spent the day yesterday at an antique auction, and I spent part of the day on Tuesday at the library at Ohio State, trying, among other things, to track down some information about the author of a short (15-page) manuscript (really, an agfa photo-duplication copy of a typescript) that I recently purchased. Focused writing time, I guess, doesn’t really keep me away from my daily work as much as I might have imagined.

Focused writing time, in this case, means I am trying to find time (a couple of hours, at least) to write on my book both in the morning and the afternoon. What has become my daily routine over the last three years goes something like this: I get up in the morning, pack up whatever books or glass I’ve sold that needs to ship out that day, and I take it to the post office. This usually takes an hour or two, from printing out shipping manifests to leaving the post office. Then I walk to the local coffee shop and spend an hour or two writing, on this blog or on various other writing tasks: I may have left academic employment, but I’ve come to see that writing is truly something I do. I head home for lunch, and then spend some time listing things for sale, on eBay or on ABEbooks, or sometimes both (this, too, is a kind of writing, of course). Then I usually spend the rest of the afternoon looking at eBay, trying to find items to buy. Sometimes, I spend extra time preparing catalogues or mini-lists of books for sale (more writing), as well, because some interesting items would rarely if ever be searched for by potential buyers, and listing them on ABEbooks or eBay would not do much good.

It’s a lot of sitting and working on the computer, and I’ve jokingly told some folks that it must be the world’s easiest job. I usually follow that up by saying that, on average, I need to buy something every day (literally, thirty days a month) that I can make a hundred dollars on. What’s surprising is that, on the whole, I can often  do that—on average. Some days I find or buy much more, or much less, than other days. Some days I sell much more, or less, than that.

This month, though, I've been sacrificing some (not all) of the buying and selling time (and blog-writing time: hence, this abbreviated post) in order to try to write for around four hours a day: I thought I’d shoot for 3000 words per day. So far, I’ve not managed that, but two weeks into the project, I’ve written close to 15,000 words, and I am maybe 40% of the way through. I’d prefer to get the draft done before August starts, but we’ll see. I’ll try to keep you (blog-) posted.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Shelf Life

First Edition of The
Time Traveler's Wife.
The first copy of the first edition of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife that I found, I sold for $110.00. Since then, I’ve found two more copies, and I have not been able to sell them for $25.00 each, though I’d be happy to take it. The book was a surprising bestseller, not published by one of the larger publishing houses, and actual first editions are somewhat scarce. But their monetary value has fluctuated, and fluctuated fairly widely, over only a short span of years.

It is possible, of course, that my first editions will someday regain the value they once had, though I probably shouldn’t count on it. Collectible modern first editions often have what might be called a shelf life, a span of time in which the market is active and the prices are high, until supply either does or (less often) does not catch up to demand. A book with lasting value must have ongoing, long-lasting demand, and collectors and dealers are often only guessing about what might have value five or ten years in the future, or even longer. It’s a lesson I seem to keep forgetting: if I cannot sell one copy of a book for $25.00, why is it that I’d buy the second? Because once upon a time it had been worth a good deal more?

Sometime in the late 1990s, I had a similar realization about academic scholarship in English. I had been teaching a graduate seminar in Middle English, and a student brought me a draft of a paper in which C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image was the primary academic work cited and referenced in the argument. “Lewis is certainly an important figure,” I told the student (at least this is how I remember it now), “but there’s been plenty of work done since then that will help you make your work, and your contributions, seem up-to-date.” There is, I was trying to tell this student, a shelf life for academic work.

Since that time, I’ve often discussed with students and colleagues the question of the typical shelf-life of an academic article in English: rarely is it suggested that the typical lifespan of an article exceeds ten or fifteen years. Of course, some important works of scholarship remain significant for far longer, even a century or more, as is certainly the case for some works in the field I know best, Old English. But a more typical, less exceptional piece of scholarship might be expected to appear on other scholars’ radar for only a decade or two, at most.

It was, I have to admit, a disturbing and daunting realization for me: my own academic career was quite likely to outlast the shelf-life of some of my own scholarship! Certainly, this resonated with my perception that if I tied my work too closely to a particular mode or trend in current scholarship, I would risk falling (or, if I was lucky, rising) with the fortunes of the scholarly trend itself, regardless of the quality or relevance of my own contributions. At best, it seemed, I’d need to re-invent myself, my scholarship, and my career at least once, since after twenty years in academia, I’d still be only fifty, and with (I hoped) a great deal yet to offer.

Perhaps it was entirely self-serving (or intolerably arrogant) of me, but I pretty much decided there and then, back in the late 1990s, that I didn’t want to outlive my scholarship. Having no confidence in my own ability to predict which academic trend I should plan to ride upon the coattails of, I opted to try something else. I decided to start tackling problems which, it seemed to me, had the potential to have the longest possible shelf life.

Specifically, I got serious about studying Old English meter. Of course, Nick Howe, my former dissertation director, and someone whose opinions about the academic profession I valued very highly, warned me not to write a book on meter. “No one will read it, and you’ll be pigeonholed as a metricist,” he said, or words to that effect. He was right on both counts, as it happened, though a few hardy souls seem now to have made their way through my 2005 book Early English Metre. But the central question that drove my thinking—how exactly do we know what is prose and what is verse in Old English?—turned out to be just the question I needed to ask, and I never turned back. Indeed, every academic book I’ve written or planned since has been built, in one way or another, upon that question and its answers.

But tackling the question of Old English meter was not a simple project: I started, quite literally, by scanning every line and verse of Beowulf, a project that took me a full year: my first Sabbatical. I later scanned every line of the Old Saxon Heliand, a poem twice as long. That only took me about eighteen months. Fortunately, I seem to have the kind of patience (or plodding nature, some might say) that makes this kind of work both possible and tolerable. But I cannot help thinking that devoting two-and-a-half years to such basic, ground-laying work might not have been a wise choice, a wise investment of my time, perhaps, if I had been thinking of writing articles with a shelf-life of only ten or fifteen years. Fortunately, I was more ambitious than that.

It has only been five or ten years, now, since my most important thinking and writing on Old English and Old Saxon meter was published: there has not been time, yet, to really assess whether or not they will have the longer shelf life I hope that they will have. Indeed, my clearest (and I believe definitive) statement on the question of how to tell prose from verse in Old English has yet to see print. But doing this work has been enormously rewarding to me, though it matches none of the ways in which academic work is usually evaluated in terms of timeliness or relevance: the work’s theoretical underpinnings are too basic; its conclusions are without obvious political relevance; its theoretical grounding is not linked to any theorists with major name-recognition. It is, in short, not trendy.

Things might have been different, I see now, if I had thought about the clash between the length of my career and the potential shelf-life of my works differently, way back in the late 1990s. The trendiness of a scholarly essay, for example, might be considered not in terms of shortness of shelf-life, but in terms of effectiveness in career-advancement. The beauty of a short shelf-life for articles, of course, is that ten or fifteen years is usually sufficient to see one through tenure and maybe even through promotion to full professor, if one can get onto the tenure track quickly enough. And I hope that maybe there’s a way to write essays that can both serve to advance one’s career and have much longer-lasting value in their field. But I do worry that whenever I’ve asked students, friends, and colleagues about shelf-life, ten or fifteen years is always how it’s seen. I am hopeful too, of course, that my copies of The Time Traveler’s Wife will one day be worth more than $25.00 again. But I don’t, frankly, expect it.

Friday, July 3, 2015

How I was Subordinated: Let me Count the Ways

It has been many, many years since I’ve taught Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but her “How do I love thee?” sonnet is one of those few poems that have achieved a kind of cultural fame: everyone knows it. And somehow, in a weird way, the list has itself made a kind of comeback as a literary form in recent years, whether in McSweeney’s or in the seemingly innumerable internet sites that give us clickbait titles like: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: You Won’t Believe Number 7!”

My old teacher Nick Howe, of course, would point out that literary listing or cataloguing is a very old practice, with a genealogy connecting Isidore of Seville to Jorge Luis Borges, and stretching even beyond those two giants. So here, today, I am merely engaging in an old, old textual strategy, to list the ways in which I felt structurally subordinated and placed in a second-class position while I was a teaching professor. I doubt that my own list will achieve the status of literature, but I do hope that the power of the list will help my ideas to be heard.

I have worked hard here to avoid using terms like “oppressed” in this list. But the problem with hierarchical positioning is precisely that: when there are levels involved, some are higher, and some are lower. Perhaps because I was a tenured full professor before I accepted work as a teaching professor, I could see and feel the ways in which, where I once had held the higher position, now I held the lower one. Certainly, the way in which my experience reversed the “normal” ordering—where one works as an adjunct or teaching faculty before (ideally, or hypothetically) moving up to the tenure track—gave me fresh insight into the ways the two levels were structurally configured.

And that’s what I hope to do here: simply list the structural modes in which the two levels or types of faculty member were distinguished at my last academic institution, with one type of faculty position regularly positioned as higher than the other. Many times I heard from my bosses, while I was a teaching professor, that I was a valued and important member of the faculty: those words, it seemed to me, were belied each time I considered the various items I list below. I don’t think that my bosses were lying to me, but rather I could see that there were at least two modes of valuing faculty members. Part of my intention with this list is simply to clarify for those who see only one side of the picture how these two modes operate.

Tom’s List: The Ways I was Structurally Subordinated as a Teaching Professor.

1. I taught more classes per term than the tenure-track faculty. I taught four classes per semester and thus eight classes per school year. During my five years of doing so, tenure-track faculty successfully altered their own contracts to move from five classes per year to four, often describing the change as a work-load issue.

2. I was paid less overall than the tenure-track faculty. The thirteen years of teaching experience that I brought to my new job were not rewarded, except perhaps in the type of position I was offered: I was paid as a beginner in that position, and my salary started out about ten thousand dollars less than beginning Assistant Professors in the department received. I was eligible for raises and promotion, so eventually I might have made more than a beginning Assistant, but in the five years I worked in the job, I believe those starting salaries grew faster than my own did.

3. I was paid less per course than the tenure-track faculty. This is, of course, the inevitable result of points 1 and 2 combined. But it bears noting: my labor in the classroom was paid at less than half the rate per course of some other faculty members, including some with fewer years of experience and with fewer publications. Experience and qualifications counted far less than job title.

4. I usually taught classes that the tenure-track faculty actively avoided. The core of my load was sophomore level writing courses. Filled with students who often felt they had learned all the writing skills they needed in their freshman level writing course, these courses were notoriously work-intensive and could be unrewarding: tenure-track faculty happily avoided them, as a rule.

5. I usually taught non-majors, while tenure-track faculty usually taught majors. The classes described in point 4 indicate this, but when I was given courses in the major to teach, they were usually either sophomore level surveys (Brit Lit I) or courses that the department thought would fill with non-majors (comics, science fiction and fantasy). I occasionally was assigned other courses when a tenure-track faculty member went on leave or was otherwise unavailable. There are, of course, rewards to teaching students of diverse academic backgrounds and preparation, but extra work is sometimes necessary, and tenure-track faculty, who regularly dealt with classes full of majors only, could usually count on an audience somewhat easier to plan for, easier to deal with, and easier to please when evaluations were filled out. The Brit Lit surveys, of course, also usually had more students in them than upper level courses for English majors.

6. I was barred from certain kinds of teaching entirely. While I was repeatedly told that I was eligible to teach graduate courses in my field, I was never assigned one, even when I was the only faculty member in my area of specialization. I was explicitly barred by policy from directing doctoral students.

7. I was eligible for some research support, but products of my research could not be used in my annual evaluation. My contract called for evaluation on 80% teaching and 20% service. I was able to get some conference funding and some other research support. Note that the department and university did include my publications in annual accounts of scholarship performed, and the department displayed my book among other faculty books, so while my scholarly work was understood to benefit the university and the department, it did not benefit me within the institution.

8. I was also not eligible to be considered for my college’s annual “College Scholar” award. This was particularly annoying since I couldn’t get credit for scholarship during annual evaluation.

9. I did not have access to the full range of service and governance opportunities. I could and did serve on the faculty senate and on university, college, and departmental committees, some of which I was eligible to chair. I contemplated throwing my hat into the ring when a new department chair was being sought, and to be honest, I never found out for sure whether I was actually eligible or not: but I doubt I would have been seriously considered even if I had been technically eligible. Certainly, there were departmental committees I was barred from chairing, because they required a tenured chair.

10. I had less opportunity to boost my merit pay than my tenure-track colleagues. Merit pay, when it was available, was based on annual review scores. Of course, tenure-track colleagues could count scholarship in their annual review, while I could not. This may not have been a problem, but the departmental evaluation guidelines allowed tenure-track faculty to “save” or “bank” scholarly publications from one year to the next, in order to help them get the highest annual review scores on a regular basis. No such system applied for teaching professors, who could only rely on one year’s accomplishments for one year’s evaluation score. Since merit pay raises were added to base pay, this extra potential for access to merit pay had an effect that would multiply over the course of a career.

11. The terms of my contract were interpreted narrowly, while the terms of my tenure-track colleagues' contracts were interpreted generously. Because my contract specified that there was no research component, none of my scholarly accomplishments counted during my annual review. But tenure-track faculty members (like me) were on a part-year contract (nine months), and yet the work they did over the summer on scholarship was regularly counted as if it were relevant to their employment contract. In my case, work done that was not under contract was not counted; in their case, work done while not under contract was counted.

Finally, I should say that I probably had the very best type of adjunct employment available: I had an annual contract, one that was expected to be renewed; I had health insurance and TIAA-CREF; I had an office to myself; and so on. I was just about as close to being a tenure-track faculty member as it is possible to be. More stereotypical adjuncts would, of course, have several additional modes of subordination that they could describe. When we think about the splitting of university teaching into a two-tier system, what I’ve described here is still a far better job than most adjuncts have.  

Many adjuncts would probably be thrilled to have the job I had. Most tenure-track faculty, I suspect, would be up in arms, if their schools required them to accept the terms I had. No wonder common cause between the two groups is so hard to achieve.