Friday, January 02, 2009

Year in Review

by J J Cohen

[So I hit the PUBLISH button yesterday when I thought I hit SAVE. I didn't mean for this post to go out yet; it's only half done, and it is certainly half baked. Nonetheless since Rob has already commented upon it ... here is the year in review part one]

So John tagged me quite some time ago for a year in review meme.

On the theory of "better fashionably late rather than a no-show," I offer the following. I've attempted to stay true to the spirit in which John's own post was composed, combining the personal with the professional. A few of these topics have not yet been mentioned here, so what you'll read is not entirely yesterday's news.
  1. January: An offer arrived from a department chair to take me out to dinner when she was in DC, and so began a long conversation about my leaving GW for an endowed chair elsewhere. For a variety of reasons (<--bland, evasive formulation that cannot quite hide my discomfort at talking about academia's taboo subject, jobs) I eventually removed myself from candidacy. Still, even though I realized this was not the right move at the right time, it was a useful invitation for my family to ponder what in our lives we value, and what we desire to change. We agreed that a great attraction of potentially moving to a distant city would be the chance to jump from the ever-running treadmill of commitments that make our lives such a complicated ballet (and ballet is never executed well on a treadmill -- have you tried a grand jeté while that conveyor belt thing is on?). We would have had the chance to catch our breath. We're now determined to find other ways to do that ... and that is one reason why I will not be serving a second term as chair of the GW English department.
  2. February: I got to hang out this month with Nadeem Aslam, whose novel Maps for Lost Lovers has long been among my favorites. His writing process gave me pause: on the one hand he seems so gregarious, on the other so solitary (Because I spend my life surrounded by people, and because a part of me just wants to read, I often fantasize about being a hermit. In fact that seclusion appeals to me only until I gain a small measure of it; then I'm lonely). My son still treasures a voodoo baseball player we have in our car, which Nadeem insisted was a voodoo cricket player.
  3. March: I spent much of 2008 thinking about hybridity and Jewish identity. This year and next I'll be giving plenaries on the topic ... but I realize how personal the theme remains. The Cohens also took a family trip to NYC via bus that was so much fun we'll do it again this year, in April.
  4. April: I composed yet another manifesto for medieval studies. My next manifesto will be a manifesto about how we need to stop manifesting manifestos. Honestly, it isn't a genre I'm very good at: I'm not as comfortable talking meta as, say, Eileen is (no one does meta as well as she does). The partial wrongness of every general statement I make renders it difficult for me to make general statements.
  5. May: Post-Kzoo (and what a Kzoo it was -- Celery World!), I realized that my fourth monograph is coming together. Though the book is very much in process, though I won't have a good idea of its actual contours until I have some time to think, still I know that it will likely bear the title Art from a Stone: Dreaming the Prehistoric in the Middle Ages. As you may have noticed from recent blog posts at ITM, I've been rather interested in megaliths, deep history, and vast temporal gaps.
  6. June: I learned once again what an admirable person my son is. Unfortunately of late he has begun to roll his eyes at most everything I say. Often he seems embarrassed that I could, you know, even be alive within proximity to him. He still cannot decide if he most enjoys cuddling with or torturing his younger sister. Still, I am proud of the transition he has made to middle school. In fact he's in his room studying the division of negative exponentials for his midterm exam right now. Boxing Bob, by the way, is still in search of a publisher.


Rob Barrett said...

You were actually considering a second, consecutive term as chair of the department?!?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I know it is traditional to treat administration as an evil, even if a necessary one, and to consider time spent in such a role as time that would have been better put to one's own scholarship. We who are fortunate enough to be tenured faculty often act as if we are powerless to change the structures within which we work, but in fact we are that very system. I believe that we are obligated to foster the kinds of community we desire and NOT take the easier route of griping, rejecting, and thereby maintaining our solitariness.

A less preachy way of putting this: being department chair has had two rewards that make me very happy that I've done it: (1) the ability to shape, foster, and secure longterm resources for a community to which I am happy to belong, and (2) the ability to have a positive impact on the lives of many people about whom I care deeply (especially junior faculty and students). So many of the problems with which I grapple in my scholarship are unsolvable: I can spend my life on them and there will still be more to say. As department chair there have been many days where I have been able to solve something quickly and well. Having someone depart my office better for our interaction: what could be sweeter and more gratifying than that?

Rob Barrett said...

Heh--it's not the desire to serve as chair a second time that confounds me, Jeffrey. I mean, I've decided that I will willingly serve again as associate head if I'm needed and if I have my promotion to full professor in hand. It was the fact that you were considering back-to-back terms. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to the second half. And I like the sentiment expressed in your comment above. One of the many things I learned from T.A. Shippey, who often did far more than he was contractually required to, is that senior faculty should take on the "heavy" work to better allow junior faculty to work towards becoming senior faculty. I don't think everyone has the temperament to be an administrator, but there's more than one way to change structures and foster community.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

About five years seems to me the ideal amount of time to take on an administrative job: long enough to accomplish something lasting, but not so long that you ossify into the job and simply keep doing more of the same, but with less energy and little innovation (or, maybe worse, self-identify with the position to the extent that it becomes difficult to give it up and move on to what is next).

I'd like to think that I've crammed five years of work into my three year term ... I should also add that I have been very, very fortunate in that I've been able to locate alumni and current students willing to make a significant investment in my department, so for the first time ever we have semester long residencies of famous authors (Edward P Jones) and academics (José Muñoz), a lively slate of visiting authors (in the spring with a Jewish lit theme: Michael Chabon, Art Spiegelman...), a new endowment that allows us to stage some events, and an institutional investment that has funded a Medieval and Early Modern Studies institute for three years. So even if my term ends after only a three year run, the resources will at least be there to continue many of the things that started while I've been chair. That's not a bad legacy.

Speaking of which: it has often struck me that only the crazy administrators are long remembered, so I have a plan to make the spring semester a living hell for all in my department: midnight faculty meetings, cryptic and confidence-eroding emails, paranoia-inducing memoranda, having the walls of the department painted chartreuse and violet, special theme days ... it is going to be fun.

Anonymous said...

Oh to be able to talk about the job market - any blogs anywhere do this?

dtkline said...

Not talking about jobs isn't a problem at

It looks like a good resource - for job seekers, job bewailers, job switchers, and all sorts of job jobbing.

And thanks for the reflections on admin positions, JJC. Colleagues have been encouraging me to take on the chair next year (we have three year terms), but I've been told that if I do, I can forget about having any time for scholarship (which is hard enough with a 3/3, though it's better than when I had a 4/4).

Does anyone else find themselves assessing their lives in terms of opportunity costs (that is, doing this means I won't have time to do all these other things?)? In my context, chairs have all the responsibility but none of the authority or budget - all that is within the dean's purview.

At the same time, the only way to get ahead here (or maybe just stay even) is to go over to the dark side, whose temptations are always strong.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

That is quite a wiki, Dan -- I think I'll frontpage that one later.

As to opportunity costs, I think that is part of the calculus of administration (it has to be). But for me the most important question was: by being department chair, will I be able to shape the department in such a way that I will want to be part of it for a long time? Because if the answer to that is YES, and I don't serve as chair, than I have forfeited my right to complain about anything!

Karl Steel said...

Though the book is very much in process, though I won't have a good idea of its actual contours until I have some time to think, still I know that it will likely bear the title Art from a Stone: Dreaming the Prehistoric in the Middle Ages. As you may have noticed from recent blog posts at ITM, I've been rather interested in megaliths, deep history, and vast temporal gaps.

One of the many horrifying things I encountered on my NW Winter trip was a book of devotions for grandparents pertly stored on the toilet top in a bathroom. In addition to the use of bizarrely out-of-context quotes (such as Voltaire's "if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him" as proof (!) of God's existence), I encountered what seemed to be a cypto-White Supremacist devotion on megaliths and deep history. Its claim? If I remember correctly, that ancient structures in Malta and some other European sites predate the Pyramids and thus claims that civilization originated in Africa or the Near East, and specifically, that Europe was not the founder of civilization, need to be rethought. I can't remember what devotion this led to because my head was spinning too fast for thought. Nonetheless, I did remember it well enough to bring it to your attention here and to suggest that you might want to try to run across such claims, and discuss them, in Art from a Stone.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Having your head spin while in the lavatory is probably not a good situation.

OK, I will see if I can track this down ... though it seems to me a variant of the Erich von Däniken school of dispossessing humans of the history they made via completely insane theories.

Karl Steel said...

Chariots of the Gods, right?

In this case, though, we have competing notions of deep time in which the rock culturework--Pyramids, whatever--stand FOR presently existing people [Europeans vs. Africans] rather than displacing people. I'll see what I can do to help you track down this material, although I'm afraid of what nasty Aryan dreams I might stumble into in the process.