I was recently part of a panel organized by Holly Dugan at George Washington University on the topic of #altac and #postac careers. The storify from the tweets is worth reading through for the insights from my fellow panelists, Alyssa Harad, Evan Rhodes, and Meredith Hindley, and for comments from the audience. The first part of my talk was a reperformance of the “make your own luck” pecha kucha I did for MLA 2013 and have already shared here, but since I felt the urge to share some advice for students and faculty on the topic of pursuing #altac careers, I thought I’d post those. Continue reading
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
What follows is a keynote I gave at the Digital Preservation 2013 conference on July 23, 2013. If you’re curious, there’s a video up of the talk and the Q & A as well and a pdf of the slides I showed (some of which vary from what I’ve shown here).
“Disembodying the past to preserve it”
I am, as you’ve heard, not someone who focuses on issues of digital preservation. I’m a book historian and performance scholar who works at a cultural heritage organization that is focused on the preservation and exploration of centuries-old objects. I think about the digital and preservation from the perspective of someone who studies the past and seeks new ways to make it accessible to scholars and the public.
So since I spend a lot of time thinking about the history of books and since so many people see the rise of the digital heralding the end of print, I thought I would start off by looking back at the earliest surviving instances of moveable type in the West. We all know, I think, that the first book printed by Johannes Gutenberg was the bible in 1455. But that wasn’t the earliest instance of print. Gutenberg’s first printed text were indulgences—short formulaic texts sold by the Church and its deputies to fund various enterprises by promising purchasers they wouldn’t need to spend as much time in purgatory for their sins.
What we’re looking at is one of the earliest surviving copies of these get-out-of-jail-free cards. Now held at the University of Manchester’s Rylands Library, this indulgence was printed in 1454 and was issued to a specific buyer in 1455 on the 27th of February. (You can see why printed indulgences were so handy—the bulk of the text is the same from one to the next, and small blank spaces can be left to be filled in by hand with the particulars for each sinner.)
There are other copies of the Gutenberg indulgences that have survived. This one is a slightly later issue (it’s the 31-line indulgence, not the 30-line, for those of you who are bibliophiles). Now part of Princeton’s collections, this indulgence was issued on 29 April 1455 in Pfullendorf to Johannes Grosshans—you can just barely make out the fact that there is a manuscript insertion here, but this copy hasn’t survived in as nearly nice shape as the last one we looked at.
It’s astonishing, actually, that any of these indulgences survived. Very few of them did—even though print runs for indulgences were huge, often in the thousands, there are only 50 recorded surviving copies of the 31-line indulgence, and a mere 8 extant copies of the 30-line. When you look at an indulgence, it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t survive in large numbers. They’re just flimsy little things. Compare these two images, the first of someone holding Princeton’s indulgence I mentioned above…
— Adam G. Hooks (@adamghooks) July 24, 2013
… and this of a bound incunable (also in Princeton’s collections):
— Adam G. Hooks (@adamghooks) July 24, 2013
The first can be held in one hand (even in its framed state) while the other rests heavily in a chair (don’t try that in your reading room, please!). I think you can guess my point: the Aristotle is big and it’s durable because it’s big. You can’t easily tear or lose this book. But a single sheet of paper? That gets misplaced, it gets accidentally destroyed, it gets forgotten. A light breeze could blow it away if you weren’t paying attention. And once the holder has died? Do you need to hang onto an indulgence as a record of your grandfather’s purchase?
The disposability of indulgences is why they haven’t survived. But it’s also why the ones that survived did. Here’s what I mean: because the indulgences weren’t seen as precious documents to save, they were perfect to reuse for other purposes. And the early indulgence that survived often did so because it was used as waste paper in bindings. Without launching into a lecture on early modern binding structures, I’ll just say that bindings often incorporated paper leftover from other projects. Endpapers, spine linings, structural supports—binders needed materials to finish their books. And why would you use good blank paper—paper that could be used for other purposes—when you had scrap paper at hand? And so odds and ends of printed paper were incorporated into the bindings of books:
If we turn back to the images of the indulgences I’ve shown, you’ll see that being treated as disposable is how they survived. The 30-line indulgence now at Manchester was preserved in a binding—you can see the evidence of holes in the corners and the stain left from the leather turn-ins. And Princeton’s copy survived as pastedowns in a binding from the early 1470s. With Cambridge University Library’s copy of Wynkyn de Worde’s 1598 indulgence we see something slightly different: these are indulgences that were never sold and are still in sheet form, preserved in the binding of a bible. This is one of my favorite examples, because it doubles as evidence of something we normally wouldn’t see, the production technique displayed in the unfinished object.
Because it was disposable, it was preserved. It’s not a preservation technique I’d recommend, but it’s worked for more than a few texts.
I’ll let you deal with what this might mean for digital preservation (I know just a tiny bit enough about digital forensics to gather that bits of data cling to other bits of data and that you might be looking to recover someone’s novel only to find that other records of their life are interspersed with it). Instead, I’ll ask what lessons we might learn from this about using digital iterations of material objects.
For starters, it’s worth pointing out that I wouldn’t have been able to give this talk if these objects hadn’t been photographed and shared online. It was because I was looking for images of indulgences for a different talk that I came across these pictures and noticed that they all looked like binders waste. Discoverability shouldn’t be news, but it shouldn’t be forgotten either.
The problem that we’re facing, in my world, is that the digital objects we’re producing sometimes lead to wonky discoveries. Here’s one thing that has been bothering me recently: the size of books.
Here we have two books of psalms, one printed in Geneva in 1576 (on the left) and one in Florence in 1566 (on the right). They are, to all appearances, the same size.
But this is how their comparative sizes should be displayed: the Italian psalter is 21 centimeters tall and the Geneva psalter is 13 centimeters, or about the height of a Sharpie. (Projected on a screen, of course, they appear to be significantly larger than a Sharpie, although perhaps on your device’s screen they are significantly smaller—a not unrelated oddity of working with digitizations of material objects: size isn’t stable.)
Here we see a collection of books as we would see them in the Folger’s digital image collection, displayed side-by-side:
Here are those same images shown in relation to each other—I arbitrarily chose one book as my standard, and then calculated the scale and adjusted the images from there:
This slide does a much better job of conveying the relative size of these books. But it’s a rotten way of browsing through a large collection of images if you’re at all interested in any feature other than size. In other words, if you want to treat these images as books—as objects that you hold in your hand and read—then you’re going to be dissatisfied. They’re always going to be digital surrogates (a phrase I hate), lacking the primacy of the original.
But what if we took the disembodied aspect of these images of books as an opportunity rather than a failure?
Here’s a fun fact about early printing that is all about its material process: many printed works are illustrated with woodcuts, images that are literally made from blocks of wood.
(I just want to make the aside that it’s pretty effing amazing that the Folger has the piece of wood that made that exact print—the other amazing thing is that on the other side of this piece of wood is carved another woodcut! Just like you’d reuse scrap paper in your bindings, you’d repurpose pieces of wood.) In any case, one of the results of illustrations being made from blocks of wood is that the blocks of wood could be reused to print illustrations in different works.
The Broadside Ballads Online project at the Bodleian has taken this fact and combined it with image search technology to begin to explore how images in Renaissance ballads are used and reused. Alexandra Franklin did some excellent work with this, starting with noticing a distinctive hat used in Unconstant Phillis, a late 17th-century lament by a shepherd about the woman he loves:
Using image match, Franklin searched across their ballad collection for other instances of the hat, pulling up 8 hits, including this one from The Noble Gallant.
What’s particularly fun about this reuse is that we see that although the hat is the same, the man wearing the hat is not!
Why might this be a useful discovery? Tracing the use of a woodblock across multiple printings and multiple works can help date printing; it can also help us think about iconography and shifting discourses. For me, this is also a useful discovery for the way it turns material objects into digital ones that can be dismembered and rearranged. It’s not strictly necessary to use digital tools to do this sort of image-hunting work: Ruth Luborsky and Elizabeth Ingram compiled their Guide to English Illustrated Books without the use of image matching technology. But it’s certainly much easier to do it with bits than with books.
What can digitization offer that material objects cannot? Tools to reshape objects that would break under physical pressure. The work done on The Great Parchment Book by the University College London Centre for Digital Humanities is the most recent and exciting example of what those possibilities are. The Great Parchment Book is a survey compiled in 1639 of all those estates in Derry managed by the City of London through the Irish Society and the City of London livery companies. It’s a remarkable set of records. But it’s also a collection of 165 leaves that were badly damaged in a fire in 1786. Through careful preservation, about 50% of the text was recovered, but the brittle, wrinkled parchment remained an intractable obstacle to further work. But after extensive physical preservation work on the manuscript and detailed imaging, the UCL team was able to virtually unwrinkle the pages (read about the preservation and digitization processes). About 90% of the text of the Great Parchment Book is now readable, and available for examination online as images of the leaves, enhanced images, or a transcription of the text.
In both of these cases, digitization makes available objects for study that would otherwise be restricted, either because they’re too fragile to handle or they’re too dispersed to work with. For someone invested in cultural heritage, these are remarkable accomplishments. We can’t study the past if we can’t access its records and artifacts.
But both of these projects are ones that require significant investments of time, money, and people. They’re not lightweight experimentations—you need high-resolution images, you need expertise in image manipulation, you need the physical objects at hand.
I want to end with a look at something that is the opposite of all this, something that builds off of what has already been done, publicizing and redeploying images without adding to them or, indeed, displaying them.
The Library of Aleph is a twitter account that tweets the captions of prints and photographs in the Library of Congress’s digital collections. The tweets are nothing more than the captions—no images themselves, no links to them. Just the captions, with occasional reminders that anyone can find these images by searching the Library of Congress. Here’s one tweet: “House burning during Groveland reign of terror—Negroes driven from homes throughout area.” Here’s a screenshot of the corresponding record:
The Library of Aleph’s tweetstream the day after the verdict of George Zimmeran’s trial was announced was a relentless account of the history of African-Americans, from slavery through Jim Crow through the Civil Rights Movement. The person who created The Library of Aleph hadn’t created it for this purpose—it was really an account he put together to tweet out some of the interesting images he was finding without cluttering up his main account. But in his anger after the verdict, it became a platform for remembering and reliving our past.
I bring it up here because of this paradox: what makes the tweets so powerful is that they are disconnected from the material object they’re referencing. They’re just captions. We might gloss over images but I think we pause over these. What are we reading? Who wrote the captions? What does it mean to choose these words to describe these images?
I love the way @libraryofaleph connects the past to the present and the present to the past. Things that speak to us today can speak to what spoke to us in the past, and digital technologies can bring them together. But what I really take out of this in terms of what cultural heritage organizations can do with digital tools to preserve our past is that this is an account that came not from the Library of Congress, but from an unaffiliated user. The Library of Congress did all the hard work in collecting these works, in digitizing them, in creating their metadata, in making them discoverable, and then in making it open so that somebody else could do with it something powerful.
And it’s that that cultural organizations need to think about in the use of the digital objects we are creating. We need to make them open so that other people can do things with them that it would never occur to us to do ourselves. Preserve your data, create your metadata carefully, and then release it. Make it open so that it can be used, so that we can learn from it, and so that it can continue to be discovered by future users.
Last week, at THATCamp CHNM, I somehow found myself giving a 5-minute talk with slides. If you’ve been to an unconference, you know this is a crazy thing to have done—the joys of THATCamp is that you don’t give or listen to talks read at you. Instead, you discuss and make things. But in this case, this was an experiment proposed by Tom Scheinfeldt to see what happened when you uncoupled slides from talks, with one person writing the talk and one person building the slide deck having only the title of the presentation in common. (As it turned out, I ended up doing this with slides from Tom, which he advanced as he heard my talk, and automatically timed slides created by Mark Sample.) In any case, the experience was weird and mildly terrifying: THATCamp isn’t a space where I’m used to behaving like a talking head, and I had no idea what Tom or Mark had done or how it would fit with what I had done. I’m still not entirely sure what they did—the one time I turned to glance at the images I think I saw a photo of naked folks standing around a campfire, and that was so distracting I turned and faced forward again. But there’s a kernel of something real in my talk, an idea that I’ve been mulling over and that I’ll be returning to in the next year or so (if all goes well, I’ll be talking about this at a conference this fall and writing about this for a forthcoming collection on Shakespeare and performance). So to keep it from disappearing into the ether, I share with you my text:
Fragments of study
Think of the most remarkable performance you’ve seen. Think of everything you remember about it—what it looked like, what it sounded like, how it made you feel, the holistic experience of it. Now imagine writing about it. Describe it, record it, explain it. This is what people in my field do—my field being, in this instance, the study of modern productions of Renaissance drama. One of the big exciting things at the moment is the development of apps and online editions of Shakespeare’s plays, sites that combine the text of the plays with clips of performances. Instead of just reading Macbeth, you can experience it. Here’s Joe Shmoe reciting “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”; now here’s Kiran Singh doing the same speech in a different production. These fragments of productions give a sense of access to live performance in a way that most readers of a script cannot achieve on their own.
If we take seriously the idea that Shakespeare’s plays continue to resonate with us centuries after they were written, then we have to take seriously the understanding that they do so because we continually reinhabit them and make them speak to us anew by performing them. It’s not the words that are timeless, but the voicing of the words that reinscribes them for each time. If we teach in literature classrooms, if we read in armchairs, then we have to find ways of conveying the importance of performance to our reception of Shakespeare.
But clips of performance are only clips; they reproduce fragments of something that is more than the sum of its parts and in breaking that larger whole into smaller bits, they diminish what it means. Talk to any actor and ask whether there’s any connection between what they do in the last act to what they did in the second act. Talk to any director and suggest there are no patterns and resonances across a production. See what sort of response you get.
And yet this is what we do when we study performance in this way. We quote moments of it, and we move on.
And this is what we do when we study literature, is it not? We quote moments of it, and we move on.
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is [.....]
I understand why we do this. How do you quote a whole? Don’t we have to break it down into smaller pieces to serve as our landmarks? How do you make sense of what is large and magnificent and full of meaning without finding details to hang onto?
But I want to pause and ask: what damage are we doing by breaking the whole into fragments? Why do we prioritize the convenience of clips over the messiness of art?
Maybe I needn’t be so melancholy about this. It’s also true that fragments can be tantalizing, full of exciting possibilities that make you want more. Some of the most exciting finds in my field are fragments of objects—my field in this instance being early modern book history. There are bits and pieces of old manuscripts and printed works that survive only in remnants. There are inky fingerprints left by printers, fragments of identities long since lost to us. Archaeologists, art historians, historians, literature scholars—we all dwell in fragments and discovery.
But I think that’s precisely the difference. The fragments that survive? They’re links to a past that would otherwise be lost; they spark our imagination and light our curiosity. But the fragments that we create out of other people’s creations? They serve us. We use them to make our points, we scatter them behind us, we move on.
[....] a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Or maybe not nothing—I certainly don’t want to claim Macbeth’s viewpoint as my own. But maybe we should be resisting the ease with which we fragment art to dissect it.
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.
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.