#altac work and gender

At the most recent Modern Language Association convention (held in Chicago, January 9–12, 2014), I organized a panel (session 757) on “Alt-Ac Work and Gender: It’s Not Plan B.” Stephanie Murray gave a wonderful talk with a feminist perspective on thinking about the metaphor of the jungle gym as a way of exploring the dynamics and value of alternative-academic careers. And Amanda French delivered a moving and powerful paper that used email as an example of the value of “empathy work” as compared to “authority work.” I don’t know what their plans are for sharing their presentations, but there’s a Storify that captured some of the tweets from the session. (Brian Croxall was part of the original panel proposal, but other commitments at the conference meant that he unfortunately had to withdraw. He published his proposed talk—which I hope he might someday expand!—on his site.)  Continue reading

multivalent print, or, learning to love ambiguity in three easy lessons

Below are the slides for and the approximate text of a talk I gave at the 2013 MLA convention as part of a panel on “Convergent Histories of the Book: From Manuscript to Digital” organized by Alex Mueller and Mike Johnston. I spoke ex tempore, so my text here won’t precisely line up with what I said at the MLA, but the gist should be the same. I’ve indicated where the slide changes are and after each change have inserted a footnote linking to source and, where available, a link to the image. I’ve also indicated my indebtedness to other scholars, particularly Jeffrey Todd Knight and Adam Smyth, in the notes.

I want to talk today about how early print complicates any trajectory from manuscript to digital, focusing on some common mistaken assumptions that are made about early print. The first assumption we make is that print replaced manuscript, that once the printing press was invented, writing by hand withered away. [slide 2] But print is not the opposite of manuscript. Indeed, we might understand print as having spurred on an increase in handwriting. When people think of the first printed work, they usually think of the Gutenberg bible. [slide 3] But Gutenberg’s first printed work was an indulgence, printed in 1454 and, as you can see, filled out by hand on 27 February 1455. Gutenberg wasn’t the only early printer to print indulgences. [slide 4] This is an indulgence printed in 1498 by Wynken de Worde. It hasn’t been filled out; in fact, it wasn’t ever cut into individual indulgences to be sold. What you’re looking at is a sheet of indulgences and the only reason it survived is because it was used as part of the binding of a book. Other categories of printed forms were popular aside from indulgences. [slide 5] This is a legal document, a summons from the Exchequer filled out on 1 August 1622. [slide 6] And this legal document from 1677 makes Francis Read of Giggleswick Bailiff of the Wapentake of Ewecross.

All of these documents were designed for the insertion of handwriting. But writing flourished on texts even when the print wasn’t inviting it. [slide 7] In this copy of Polychronicon, printed by Caxton in 1482, an early user has supplied the missing final leaves with his own manuscript copy. Is that book manuscript or print? It seems pretty clearly print: the bulk of the volume is print and the manuscript provides access to missing print. [slide 8] This copy of Aristotle’s Ethics was so  heavily annotated by its owner that the margins of the pages were not enough: he added in blank leaves to give himself more room for his notes. Is this book print or manuscript? We value it for the manuscript additions, for the dialogue between print and hand.

[slide 9] As these books make clear, print is not closed, finished, done at the moment of printing. [slide 10] We all know that print wasn’t fixed; books were printed with errors all the time, and errata notes calling attention to them. This 1624 example is one of my favorites: “There are many other errors, which being but small, I entreat the courteous reader to correct as he findes them.” [slide 11] In this 1673 book, a user has gone through and made the corrections the errata list invites him to, here crossing out “company” and writing in “presence.”

But not all marginalia responds in the way that a book invites. [slide 12] In this copy of Caxton’s 1483 printing of Confessio Amatis, a mid-sixteenth-century owner has gone through and crossed out “pope” and, in this instance, cleverly substituted “abominable” for “honourable.” But not all of the marginalia in this book responds to the text, or even works against the text. [slide 13] In the blank space on this leaf is recorded the date of the writer’s marriage: “Chrystofer Swallowe was marryed the 12th day of July in the yere of oure lorde 1553 whiche was the seventhe yere of the Reigne of kinge Edward the Sixth …. and in the firste year of the Reigne of our most Excellent and worthie princes Queyne marie the fyrst.” [slide 14] And across the bottom margins of another opening is a deed of land involving Swallowe and “Dorithe his wife.”

[slide 15] Early readers also used print for their own purposes in other ways, taking books apart and reassembling them to make their own meaning. A famous example are the Little Giddings bible concordances (here showing one at Harvard). The Little Giddings community wove together the four different gospels to produce one narrative of Christ’s life, cutting words out of the gospels and pasting them together in their harmonies. If you look closely at this image (or follow this link to see other pages from Harvard’s copy), you’ll see the small slips of paper that have been carefully rearranged and glued to make a new text.

The Harmonies are a particularly famous example of this reworking of texts, and are often discussed by later readers as shocking: Can you imagine cutting apart your bible and remaking it? [slide 16] But there are other examples of what Adam Smyth calls “reading with scissors” in this period. John Gibson’s commonplace book, put together while he was imprisoned in the 1650s, cuts out and repurposes print material with his manuscript additions. [slide 17] Gibson is not the only one to remix works. This copy of Mary Sidney’s translation of Philippe de Mornay’s A Discourse of Life and Death (1600) has been supplemented an early user with images cut from Richard Day’s A booke of Christian prayers, hand colored and pasted in, and with manuscript couplets.

It didn’t always take wielding scissors to remake texts. [slide 18] Since many early books were not sold bound, buyers could choose how and when to bind them, sometimes bringing together multiple works within one binding. In this case, a seventeenth-century reader created a compilation of verse works, ranging from narrative poetry to love lyrics and epigrams and binding together five printed works and one manuscript. As the work done by Paul Needham on Caxton and Jeffrey Todd Knight on Renaissance sammelbände shows, sometimes the books early modern readers created are surprisingly different from what we expect.

One of the reasons for our surprise is that we don’t often encounter early modern works in the same manner in which early modern readers would have. [slide 19] Our notion of what is important, of the difference between print and manuscript, of what readers do with texts, has been shaped by the assumptions and practices of collectors and curators in the nineteenth century. The questions that I asked about whether we consider a specific work print or manuscript are not questions without important implications for researchers. In most libraries, print and manuscript are cataloged separately, often with different curators in charge and with different policies and grants in place. Early modern readers might not have differentiated between print and manuscript, but nineteenth-century caretakers of those books did, and often remade them according to their notions of what was appropriate, assumptions that continue to govern how we treat and encounter early books.

[slide 20] As we just saw, binding together different works into a single volume was one way early readers made and encountered their books. It was a particularly handy way of treating plays, which were slim works that didn’t always need to be bound individually. This list shows the contents of one such volume, a collection of thirteen plays and interludes housed in one binding. But this is no longer how we encounter this volume. [slide 21] In 1961, these plays were separated from each other and rebound individually. The binder’s note in the back of each play records what it once was; the original table of contents remains with the first play in the collection. But the sense of the plays as a gathering is gone. [slide 22]  What we see are slim, tidy playbooks, not the heterogenous collection they once were.

[slide 23] Sometimes we are lucky and we catch a glimpse of what was. [slide 24] But more often we encounter early works through the interventions of later assumptions about what they were, our view of the seventeenth century shaped by nineteenth-century lenses. What we think we know about early print—that it is distinct from manuscript, that it is fixed and stable—are mistaken lessons that obscure the ambiguities and complexities of what print was and can be.


Make your own luck

What follows is a presentation I gave at the 2013 convention of the Modern Language Association (known fondly by many of us as #mla13) in the session “How Did I Get Here? Our “Altac” Jobs.” The session was a roundtable discussion, with pecha kucha presentations, about “alternative academic” careers. You can watch the slides with my audio, or read the presentation and look at the slides on your own. My thanks to Brenda Bethman and Shaun Longstreet for organizing the panel and to my fellow panelists and to the audience for a great conversation.

“Make your own luck” (MLA 2013)

I am the Undergraduate Program Director at the Folger Shakespeare Library, a position I’ve held for six years. It’s a job that combines working in one of the premier special collections of early modern literature and culture with teaching a small number of highly motivated and curious students. This is the story of how I got here.

I did a PhD in English, researching modern feminist performances of Shakespeare. After finishing, I was fortunate to get a two-year teaching postdoc, and after that, a one-year research postdoc. At the end of that, I got married to someone who had a job lined up in a Washington DC law firm, and so we moved and I started my life as an independent scholar.

I spent the next year writing my book at the Folger. During that time, I became friends with a local Shakespearean who told me that her department was looking for someone as a leave replacement. So I spent the next year teaching drama and composition at The George Washington University and the following year as an adjunct at George Mason, a job I found again through my Shakespeare friend.

Then I heard from my friend that the head of the Folger Institute wanted to take a year off. And so Gail recommended me to Kathleen, Kathleen went to write her book, and I ran the Institute for a year. At the end of that gig, another contact asked if I’d adjunct at Georgetown, covering his Shakespeare classes, and so my George-trifecta was complete.

At the end of my year at Georgetown I gave birth to my second child (I’d had the first one after my GW stint) and I spent the following year trying to catch my breath and work out how to mother two children with a spouse who was frequently traveling and parents who were aging more rapidly than I was ready to admit. The lesson I learned was that I was not cut out to stay at home.

Luckily, at that point my friend Gail, by now the Folger’s Director, hired me as a consultant on a planning grant for developing undergraduate programming in book history at the Library. So I became an independent contractor, put together an implentation plan, and then became the inaugural Folger Undergraduate Program Director, a job that I love.

I’ve used the word “luckily” to describe how I got to this place, and I certainly benefitted from luck. I live in a town rich in possibilities for Shakespeare scholarship, and I know people who led me to temporary jobs and to my current career. And for a long time I thought of how I got here as a product of luck.

But another way to think about luck is to see it as the residue of design. I wasn’t simply lucky. I worked hard—persistently and creatively—to be in a position to take advantage of opportunities that might come my way. I didn’t always know what it was that I was working toward, but I was working nonetheless. So here’s another version of the story of how I got my job.

While I was turning my dissertation into a book, I submitted an excerpt to Shakespeare Quarterly. My article wasn’t accepted, but I had a nice correspondence with the editor and our paths later crossed at the Shakespeare Association conference. That editor was Gail Kern Paster, and when I moved down to Washington DC, we were both regulars at the Folger and we would chat about our research.

Because she knew my work, she recommended me to fill in at GW. Because I knew the Folger as a reader and program participant, had administrative experience from grad school, and was an active scholar in Shakespeare circles, I was a good fit for the Institute. By this point, I’d come to know the Folger’s culture and resources and that of faculty, students, and administrators at three of the area’s largest schools.

I’d built a network of colleagues across Washington DC and across the Shakespeare community. When the Folger needed to hire someone who knew the Library and local schools, who had the administrative skills and the intellectual breadth to set up a new program, I met those needs. It wasn’t luck that I got my job, it was years of hard work.

Despite what I’ve just said—what I firmly believe about how I came to this #altac career—it took me a long time to believe that I hadn’t just accidentally lucked into it. I’d never intended to do this line of work. I’d intended to be a tenured faculty member; I spent years on the job market trying to get a job like that. But I didn’t.

Because of that history, among other things, it was hard for me to see the planning that had gone into my good fortune. Because I didn’t get what I thought I wanted, I didn’t think I deserved the thing I’d gotten. As some of you no doubt know, it’s really hard to come out of an unsuccessful job search without feeling like you’ve failed, that you’ve fallen short.

In my case, that feeling was exacerbated by the shape my family life had taken. My low-paying jobs were made possible by my spouse’s high-paying job, and while I was grateful, I also felt like a kept woman. Add to that the problem that his career wasn’t highly relocatable, and that once we had kids, it was not going to be practical for me to live apart from them.

With only part-time work coming my way and small children to raise, I squeezed my teaching and my writing into the hours I had childcare and spent the rest of my time playing and teaching and coaxing my kids to eat and nap and use the toilet and make friends and give me kisses, and while I loved my family, I was exhausted.

How grateful I was, then, to have a real job! How fortunate to be dealt such good luck! Gail Collins, in mulling over Hillary Clinton’s wide-ranging and impressive career to date, with its twists and turns from despised to beloved, wrote that she has played the cards she’s dealt. That’s one way to look at it. But I prefer Hillary’s answer:

“I choose my cards. I choose them. I play them to the best of my ability. Move on to the next hand.” There’s nothing particularly wrong with seeing yourself as the beneficiary of good fortune, except for its flip side: if you got where you are by luck and then your luck dries up? You’ll never get anywhere again. You’ll never be more than your spouse’s appendage.

My point here is that I might not have been actively planning my #altac career, but I was keeping my eye open for opportunities to learn new skills and to meet potential colleagues. The years I thought I was nothing but lucky were the years I was unhappy and insecure. Once I realized my own strengths, I knew I could succeed at other things I wanted to do.

Here’s one thing I went on to do: I knew the Folger needed to do a better job explaining the scholarship we do in publicly accessible terms, and I knew that I could do this. Since my job with the Undergraduate Program was ¾ time, I had ¼ of my time I was willing to use to start a new blog for the Library. And I so convinced them to hire me to start The Collation.

Whether you’re looking for an #altac career or you’re not, my biggest piece of advice to you is not to wait for a giant hand to point you in the right direction. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not going to see signposts leading you there. You need to make your own luck and trust that you’ll recognize your place when you arrive.


pre-hurricane catch-up

As part of my pre-hurricane planning, I’m pushing out a few pages that I’d put together but not announced. So…

In celebration of Open Access Week, here’s the fruit of my negotiated contributor’s contract: my book chapter on audiences for Stuart Hampton-Reeves and Bridget Escolme’s collection, Shakespeare and the Making of Theatre (Palgrave Macmillan 2012). The collection as a whole is geared towards exploring the practicalities of working with Shakespeare as a play texts intended for performance; my contribution explores how to think about the relationship between audiences and actors and what role each plays in shaping the other’s response. I talk about a couple of productions at Shakespeare’s Globe (a King Lear and an As You Like It), Toneelgroep’s amazing Roman Tragedies, and a Folger Theatre show of Measure for Measure.

And in celebration of the upcoming Modern Languages Assocation conference (where I’ll be participating in two roundtable discussions, “Convergent Histories of the Book: From Manuscript to Digital” and “How Did I Get Here? Our ‘Altac’ Jobs”), I’ve compiled a list of book history-related sessions. Please let me know if I’ve missed any sessions, and I’ll add them to the list.

For anyone in the path of the storms, please stay safe. And for those of you outside the myriad zones of danger, you stay safe, too!


book history at mla12

Taking inspiration from Mark Sample’s compilation of Digital Humanities sessions at the 2012 Modern Language Association convention, I’ve compiled a list of book history sessions. My method of madness was to skim the session titles and descriptions and note those that seemed to focus on bibliography, print culture, or textual scholarship. I came up with 70 sessions, including my own roundtable. That seemed like too many to be of interest to many of you, so rather than fill your feed, I put together a separate page listing them all. Check out the offerings and let me know if I’ve missed any. You can browse the entire program and, if you’re an MLA member, create your own personalized schedule of sessions you want to visit (it’s a pretty nice set-up, and yet another way in which the MLA does us proud as our scholarly organization).

As a side note, there are not as many jokey and punning titles as there used to be, once upon a time, which I suppose is a good thing. I like a good pun, but enough’s enough. There were, however, entirely too many titles that gave you no idea what a panel was about, not even a general period or theoretical approach. The best title session, without a doubt, is session 29, “Alexander Pope!” Yup. You read that right. “Alexander Pope!” (It also looks like an interesting discussion and format, so kudos to its organizers. If I didn’t have a meeting scheduled for that time, I would definitely go.)