Why I don’t teach

In a June 5, 2013, Chronicle article entitled I Don’t Like Teaching. There, I Said It., the pseudonymous Sidney Perth notes, “So if you don’t like teaching, don’t worry about it. You don’t have to like it; you just have to care about it.” Naturally Perth gets some pushback in the comments, which range from “then please do something else” to “teaching is just one part of the job of being an academic.” However, reading Perth’s post, I conclude that Perth’s reasons for not liking teaching are not my reasons. Unmotivated students, boring essays that you have to grade on deadline—we pretty much all hate that stuff.

Here’s why I don’t teach: it makes me physically ill.

I was a GTA for 4 years at the university where I got my PhD, and I won a teaching award. (I like to think that means I didn’t suck at the job.) You know that feeling of slightly sick excitement that occurs when you do something novel? Some teachers feel it before the first day of class. Some people feel it so acutely that they vomit. But then they feel better and the experience normalizes.

I never normalized. I felt ill every day before I taught, and then I felt ill on the days I taught.

I could not sleep the night before I taught because I was so stressed out. During class, I was acutely aware of students looking at me. I had trouble winging it; I had to be absolutely, positively completely prepared. I wrote out 10 things to cover in each class, just to ensure I’d fill the time allotted. If I didn’t have these things, I could barely breathe during class. On off days, when I wasn’t teaching, I was busy prepping. On on days, when I had to teach, I was busy freaking out. I felt nervously ill all the time.

It was utterly exhausting.

I went to counseling to learn relaxation techniques. I compulsively researched teaching methods, pedagogy, and excellence. Because I felt terrible about every aspect of teaching, I couldn’t tell what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong; it all felt wrong. I thought all my students hated me because I felt like I hated them—because it was all so stressful. I had completely normal student evaluations, but I focused on the two students who despised me while utterly discounting all other feedback, thus creating a self-fulfilling loop of despair.

There’s a difference between Perth’s not liking teaching and my not liking teaching: Perth can tolerate it, and I cannot. My very body will not let me teach.

My biggest fear is that something will happen and I will be forced to teach for a living. I realize this is irrational: I have a deep skill set in other fields, notably publishing, and I could easily find a job in that field if I was willing to move. My PhD is now too old for me to get work as anything other than an adjunct. Plus, what if the MA program in science fiction at Liverpool phones me up and asks me to teach a module in, say, the alternate history? Because that sounds really cool. (Although I’d be better at administration. I’m just saying. In case Liverpool reads this.)

I fully understand that this physical dislike of teaching seems irrational in light of things that I do that seem similar but that do not generate the same anxiety. For example, I can get up in front of people at an academic conference and deliver a paper. And I can wear skimpy clothing and jump around teaching aerobics. Maybe it’s because these activities feel like one-off performances to me, rather than consistent pedagogical engagement.

I do know this: students deserve an instructor who rolls out of bed thinking something other than, “Oh, please, god, NO. NO.”

Kindle Worlds and fan fiction

The Internet (and my inbox) has exploded over the last day or so as people took notice of Amazon/Kindle’s latest venture: Kindle Worlds. Amazon says excitedly, “Get ready for Kindle Worlds, a place for you to publish fan fiction inspired by popular books, shows, movies, comics, music, and games.”

What have we here? Why, it’s the latest attempt* by content providers to monetize fan labor. As far as that goes, it may be the best deal I’ve seen. Wannabe writers may write in one of three fandoms/properties: Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries (more are promised). All these are owned by Warner Bros. Naturally the requirements are pretty stringent: no explicit sex, no crossovers, etc. (author guidelines here).

I’m not exactly filled with horror about this, because if you define fan fiction as “derivative texts written for free within the context of a specific community,” then this isn’t that. True, they are fans. And they write… fiction. But what Amazon Worlds is doing is extending the opportunity to writers to work for hire by writing, on spec, derivative tie-ins in a shared universe, under terms that professional writers would be inclined to reject. However, “work for hire, on spec, for certain tie-ins” doesn’t really have the ring of “fan fiction,” does it? By using the term fan fiction, they are shorthanding their future writers as well as their perceived audience.

Fans rightly look askance at content providers who extend such opportunities, because usually the content provider offloads all the risk and takes all the revenue. So Kindle Worlds, by getting the content providers on board, explicitly setting out the rules, and stating the royalties up front, is already doing some things right. In addition, the “Worlds” thing is key to Kindle Worlds:

Kindle Worlds is a creative community where Worlds grow with each new story. You will own the copyright to the original, copyrightable elements (such as characters, scenes, and events) that you create and include in your work, and the World Licensor will retain the copyright to all the original elements of the World. When you submit your story in a World, you are granting Amazon Publishing an exclusive license to the story and all the original elements you include in that story. This means that your story and all the new elements must stay within the applicable World. We will allow Kindle Worlds authors to build on each other’s ideas and elements. We will also give the World Licensor a license to use your new elements and incorporate them into other works without further compensation to you.

One traditional aspect of fan fiction is its place within an active community. Amazon taps into this by explicitly permitting authors to riff off each other’s work. I like that they get that.

Fans won’t stop writing fan fiction: the restrictions for writing for Kindle Worlds may be too onerous for what many fans wish to write. The joy of fan fiction is that you can write whatever the hell you want, and someone is there to read it and love it. In addition, many fans are already professional writers, and they may not want to write tie-ins under terms that they would not accept for their professionally written work. And lots of fans are simply not interested in going pro; they are happy to write works to distribute for free to their community, and they don’t see writing fan fiction as something they want to monetize.

But that said, for those fans who do wish to give this a go (I would be interested myself, except… then I’d have to watch the shows), yes, you’re being exploited, but I anticipate that Kindle Worlds (if it doesn’t fall under the onslaught of fan fury†) will end up with a stable of steady writers who create their own (gated) fannish community, with cross-references and cross-writing. That would be interesting to see. But those who wish to break into freelance writing ought to brush up on what terms the industry thinks are acceptable. And maybe they should join a union.


* Remember FanLib?
† Remember FanLib?

Best SF this year!

The best SF I’ve seen this year—and admittedly it’s January 9, so there’s some time left in 2012 to go—has to be the opening credits of the 2011 David Fincher film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The imagery is drawn from the three books in the Millennium series. But it’s an incredible articulation of the melding of body and machine; in it, the heroine is seen not to be born, but rather forged:

io9.com has a “making of” feature for the opening credits, “An Exclusive Look at the Making of Dragon Tattoo’s Stunning Titles,” that interviews one of the creators, Tim Miller. It’s worth a read to see what the creators had in mind—which, in my book, has little to do with what I perceive the credits as being about, because I thought the credits transcended the text of the books.

If you’re interested in the song, it’s a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” performed by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Karen O, and can be purchased from Amazon.com.

Regarding the film itself: it doesn’t live up to the hype of the credits. The credits imply a cyberromp through the main character’s head, even as it foreshadows all the events of the entire trilogy through imagery. But the movie isn’t about what the credits are about. The credits are all SF; the film is a straight-up thriller, and any engagement with technology isn’t handled on the level of meaning that the credits promise.

I greatly preferred the Swedish-language version, which is far more compelling on every level. If you haven’t read the books and haven’t seen the Swedish-language films, then I think you can safely watch this movie and like it; but otherwise, it spends a lot of time on the mystery at the expense of some of the complexity that made the other texts so dense.

On being copyedited

A bunch of my academically employed Facebook/Twitter/social media du jour friends posted a link to an interesting article over at the Chronicle: Shame in Academic Writing. It’s all about how academics secretly think that their writing is terrible, and it makes them sad. This quote from a poor advisee sums it up:

“Is it normal,” he asked in a small voice, “to feel stupid after getting an edited manuscript back?”

Answer: Yes. Why, yes.

The problem is when these feelings manifest as temper tantrums, often directed at me, the lowly copyeditor. As someone employed in publishing, my take on this whole writing thing is, just write, and let a professional worry about making it awesome for print. If an author feels stupid (and who wouldn’t, after they see a redline where literally every line has a change?), they tend to get testy, and I have seen my share of really nasty notes. Usually it’s a knee-jerk reaction along the lines of “OMG you changed my WORDS.” What escapes these testy authors is (and this point is made in the article) someone very carefully read their entire text and analyzed it. That is time-consuming, requires real expertise, and is done out of respect for the author and the text.

This is why I hate being reviled. It’s not just OMG you changed my WORDS. It’s OMG you missed my POINT, or OMG you changed my words for NO REASON, or OMG you are so RANDOM, or OMG why is this EVEN IMPORTANT. It’s rarely OMG you saved my ASS, or OMG thank you for CATCHING THAT, or OMG you FACT-CHECKED. I still remember one author who wrote notes so nasty that I actually cried, and he reverted every single one of my edits back to the original. Every single one. So I was paid to edit, then unedit, an entire book. I had been impressed by the sheer number of prestigious presses he’d published with, but after this experience, I could see why. Nobody would work with him twice.

The difference between copyediting and, say, grading papers, or giving feedback to an advisee, is that it’s not really supposed to be a learning opportunity for the author, and authors reviewing their first copyedit don’t seem to get this, because I am not going to have an intellectual conversation with them about their article or book. I rarely write explanatory notes as I edit, unless it’s something the press specifically requested and I won’t/can’t honor a request to revert. I’m not there to teach authors how to use “due to,” or to explain why I edited every single instance of “using” that began a sentence. I’m not there to argue the merits of the serial comma that I imposed throughout; the press wants it, the press gets it, let’s move on. I’ve seen copyedited manuscripts where the copyeditor writes explanatory notes to the author, but they always come across as condescending—and see above re. making the author feel stupid.

This is all to say that when I see irate notes, sure, I get a pang of self-righteous anger: doesn’t the author see that I am trying to save her from herself? But ultimately, the author’s text is the author’s text, and she can change back whatever she wants. I don’t know how to say this nicely, so here it is: I really don’t care. Authors need not explain or justify. It’s their field, it’s their book, it’s their ideas. While I’m reading, I’m learning, and I’m vaguely engaged, but mostly I’m styling and reconciling references, and fact-checking online because it’s easier than writing a query, and wondering whether the spelling Stephen or Steven is correct. I hand it back to the author or I deliver it to the press, and I promptly forget all about it. So these dramatic OMG feelings and notes…honey, I just don’t have time for that.

Let me look at my statistics for a sec. Let’s say May 2011, chosen randomly. For my biggest client, I edited 855 pages of copy. I also edited one book (318 pages) and several manuscripts each for three other journals; I’m not going to count those pages up, but I would estimate it to be maybe 200 pages. So let’s call it…a whole ton of copy. Dudes, I am a frackin’ machine.

So to the poor trembling authors who feel inadequate, I have this to say. Yes. I changed your WORDS. If I edited a sentence and changed its meaning to something you didn’t intend, there need be no drama. Don’t even bother feeling hurt or writing a dramatic note, because for me, it’s all in a day’s work. Just change it—but keep in mind that I am no fool, and although it’s perfectly possible that I made a mistake, perhaps you ought to consider that your writing was unclear. If I made a change and you don’t understand why, but it makes sense, then just leave it, because I had a reason, even if you don’t know what it was.

I’m sure every author has a story about the stupid copyeditor who altered things willy-nilly and it took just forever to correct. I have stories too. But it boils down to this. It’s the copyeditor’s job to edit. It’s the author’s job to check over and approve it. If authors find something wrong and change it, well, um, that’s how it works. That’s supposed to happen.

Although I can advise authors that there’s no point in feeling stupid, that still doesn’t make them feel any less stupid when they get a marked-up edited manuscript. So my advice is, let the process do its work: write, revise, submit, revise, copyedit, review copyedit, review galleys, proofread. See how many steps there are? There’s a reason for that. There’s no need for drama, unprofessional notes, anger, or angst. Maybe this book is your life’s work, but it’s just a job for me. I see a lot of copy, I edit a lot of books, and I don’t think you’re stupid. But then again, why would you care what I think?

Just write and don’t worry about it too much, because there’s a whole process to make that writing awesome. That’s all any of us want.

DOIs and URLs

I recently received an e-mail from the DOI folks announcing that the styling doi:10.3983/twc.2011.0271 (with the doi: prefix run into the DOI number) may be replaced with the actual URL that the DOI links to—in this case, http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2011.0271. This is big news indeed! But it is news that is unlikely to result in immediate action on anybody’s part.

For those of you unaware of DOIs, which remain relatively rare in the humanities but which are used extensively in the sciences, it’s a scheme meant to permit URLs to persist. Instead of a “permanent” URL pointing to a journal article, book, or other element, a DOI is assigned. The DOI is included with the publication so scholars can cite it. Then, in theory, someone who wants to access the article can just type in the DOI and be taken the article’s primary page. This can be the article itself, but more commonly it is a summary page, with citation info, abstract, and the like, plus perhaps an opportunity to purchase the article (example here). Then, when a Web site is totally restructured, as it inevitably is, the journal just deposits new URLs associated with the DOIs, and magically, the DOIs continue to hit.

According to the note from DOI, they had hoped or assumed that the doi: prefix would be automatically rendered by browsers to take you right to the DOI, so you could just copy or hotlink “doi:10.3983/twc.2011.0271” in a browser, and you’d be taken right to the correct summary page. This hasn’t happened, though, and bowing to the inevitable, DOI has given their blessing for the DOIs’ related URLs to be used instead. The DOI URL prefix “http://dx.doi.org/” simply replaces the “doi:” part. I can see DOI’s logic in preferring to hope that the “doi:” would be made to automatically hit, because now “http://dx.doi.org/” is going to have to persist. The “doi:” styling also has the beauty of being immediately differentiated from a URL, which is good because DOIs and URLs are different things.

This new styling may take a while to trickle down to common usage. For example, the latest (16th) edition of the Chicago Manual of Style provides styling information that uses the doi:10.3983/twc.2011.0271 protocol, and it’s much, much easier to point authors to a published style than to make exceptions. Oh, the irony! No sooner does Chicago get on board than DOI permits this new style.

Meanwhile, for those of you taking seriously various styling guidelines requesting DOIs, you may look up a small number of them at CrossRef.org’s DOI Lookup. You may also sign up for an account to do automated batch queries.

Humanities, meet the sciences!

A recent spate of research I’m conducting, which has included some data input into Zotero, has only reaffirmed my belief that the sciences can teach the humanities much. I’m not just talking about quick peer review turnaround times and wait times to publication that don’t stretch into years. I’m talking about something simple, something basic: abstracts and titles.

Admittedly I am coming at this from the point of view of an unaffiliated scholar. Getting access to texts is a huge chore. I can’t just magically obtain something and flip through it to see if it’s what I need. I have to research it first, then decide if I want it, and then decide if it rates being one of the five books I can request at one time. I can’t possibly be the only person who wishes that I could figure out what something was about without actually having to read it.

Heed my call, journals and scholars in the humanities! Abstracts and titles. Please, I beg you, make them count. Let’s follow the example of the sciences here.


Abstracts in the humanities are relatively rare but are becoming more common now that many journals are transitioning online. The library databases I see squish all the data into a common presentation format, which includes a space for an abstract. Good start! Of course, if no abstract originally appeared—as is all too common in the humanities—we instead get a useless one- or two-sentence summary that some poor data-entry sod had to write up when submitting the data to the aggregator.

Contrast this with the sciences. They provide abstracts with everything, not to mention maybe also keywords, a two-sentence precis, and a “what’s new” box that indicates what this text is adding to the literature. You want to know the point of the article? It is right there. You want to know what this adds to the field? They say it in actual words. There are two kinds of abstracts: unstructured and structured. Unstructured abstracts are just narrative text, maybe 250 words long max. Structured abstracts are divided into sections such as background, methods, results, and conclusion, thus neatly summarizing the entire study.

Were the humanities to more widely implement abstracts, I imagine that most would use unstructured abstracts. But allow me to humbly suggest heads for a structured abstract: background, thesis, methodology, and significance. Background and thesis ought to be self-explanatory. By methodology, I mean the approach (queer theory; posthuman analysis) and an indication of the sort of study (close analysis of a single text; compare–contrast; manuscript analysis; online survey; application of existing theory to a new text). By significance, I mean what this is adding to the field.

At the very least, constructing an abstract along these lines will really focus the writer, forcing her to actually have a point. This can only be good. In addition, the information provided about approach/methodology will help scholars contextualize each other’s work, especially if people are working across disciplines.

The abstracts are then ideally put online, for free, to be endlessly reproduced by anybody who wants to, so that access to a locked-down library database is not necessary for one to learn of the mere existence of this bit of scholarship.


In the sciences, article titles are actually meaningful. Some titles, usually the ones that use verbs, actually summarize the results of the study: “Defective IL-10 signaling in hyper-IgE syndrome results in impaired generation of tolerogenic dendritic cells and induced regulatory T cells” (Saito et al., J Exp Med, 2011;208:235–249, chosen randomly). Were I a cell researcher, I would know instantly whether this paper was relevant to my current project.

Humanities journal article titles, on the other hand, tend to be informative only in their subtitles. The foretitles are often little discursive dances, often a pithy quotation.* As an extreme example, check out the table of contents for the March 2010 issue of PMLA (125, no. 2).† Out of the five titles provided, only one has the actual topic of the paper (Beowulf) listed in the foretitle. Here are the foretitles of the other four: “Swollen Women, Shifting Canon,” “‘As a leaf on a branch…,'” “Clustering and Curling Locks,” and “Beyond Sacrifice.” Go on, give a guess as to what these papers are about. No, try. Give up? From what I can infer from the subtitles, the topics are, respectively, midwifery and genre of the romance lyric; Dante; Paradise Lost; and Milton.

I call for boring, representative paper titles because the titles will reveal the topic, and what with the endemic lack of abstracts, we need all the help we can get. Many databases truncate titles after the foretitle, so the subtitle is not reproduced and is not searchable. The foretitle thus ought to include the actual topic of the paper. Think of it as a dense keyword dump. Something like this: “Midwifery, the Romance Lyric, and Tenth-Century Occitan Poetry.”


I’m not calling for keywords in the humanities, despite their extensive use in the sciences, because they aren’t that helpful without an infrastructure in place that would permit them to make meaning. The Web can do that now. If authors had titles that actually reflected the topic, as well as useful abstracts, keywords would be superfluous because hits via search engines would actually work, assuming the titles and abstracts were available for free online (and that’s a big if). Keywords in the sciences and in medicine are often related to subject terms, like MeSH terms, and assigning MeSH terms is so difficult that professionals have to do it.


I don’t think I’m asking for anything radical here. I’m not sure why the humanities has created an infrastructure so unfriendly to actually finding out what is going on in individual bits of scholarship. Of course, my mantra is, “What’s the point?” And if I can’t figure out what the point is, I move on. I thus urge writers in the humanities to not make me work so hard. Explaining yourself will also help justify the importance of your research—and if you can’t, well, maybe that bit of scholarship doesn’t need to be disseminated.



* In foretitles that are quotations, the quotation ought to be immediately recognizable: a famous line, a cliche, whatever. And if it’s not, the quotation ought to be used and sourced somewhere in the paper itself. Otherwise, it’s just puzzling. What is this quotation I have never heard of, and why are you using it?

† I am only picking on PMLA because I think it can take it. Apologies to the authors of the papers for implying disapproval; I’m confident that they had lots of fun coming up with their titles. Kudos to PMLA for having its tables of contents and abstracts available for free online.

This text is copyrighted under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. This post was originally written on March 10, 2011. It may be freely copied anywhere. If you read this document at a site other than its original, I may not see any comments you might append, and I’d love to hear from you. Please comment at the original blog post if you wish me to see your remarks.

Endless research

Yes, it’s happening again: I am engaging in endless research that in no way is time effective. I suppose I’m not the only one who would rather spend time than money. Last time I angsted this hard, I was attempting to optimize my Palm Tungsten E. I blogged about that experience, but months later, the Palm died utterly and I was forced to buy an iPod touch. Only recently, now that the new OS supports a foldy full-size Bluetooth keyboard without jailbreaking, have I become reconciled to the touch.

Then what does Apple do? It releases a pretty, shiny new touch that takes photos and permits video chatting. Darn you, Apple! Because I would rather not pay $400 to upgrade and hand off my old one to my husband. Whose Palm, I point out, still works fine.

The smart thing to do would be to buy a netbook. It would solve so, so many problems: they too cost about $400; they have a full-size keyboard, more or less; they permit USB ports, so I could push photos to it; I could use it to edit documents while on the road; I could Skype with my friends and relations; and the batteries last a nice, long time, so I could watch video while traveling.

iPod touch with Palm Bluetooth keyboard versus netbook
iPod touch with Palm Bluetooth keyboard versus netbook

But no. I’d rather work what I’ve got. See, I’m going to Poland for the SFRA conference July 7–10, 2011. I’d like to blog while on the road, with photos! And I could do it all with my iPod touch—and my foldy keyboard, of course. All I need to do is spend $40 to purchase an SD card reader that will push my camera’s images to my touch, then use a few free apps to organize, blog, and tweet. Win! I take high-quality photos that I can download at home later, but blog low-quality, Web-optimized images that the apps generate.

I’m going to do this for three reasons. First, and possibly the most important, is the technical joy: I like making (obsolete?) equipment work. Second is my driven need to optimize small: I’m a one-bag packer. And third is the cost: $40 is better than $400.

iPod touch/keyboard atop netbook
iPod touch/keyboard atop netbook: Which would you rather carry to Poland?

Never mind that I will spend literally hours setting all this up (Apps! Passwords! Endless tweaking!). Never mind that the touch’s insanely small screen drives me nuts when attempting to surf the Net. And never mind that I can’t edit paid work on it (see above re. insanely small screen).

I think the fun of the technical challenge is worth $40.

This text and the two images, which I created, are copyrighted under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. This post was originally written on December 1, 2010. It may be freely copied anywhere. If you copy this post, please also copy the images and host them yourself. If you read this document at a site other than its original, I may not see any comments you might append, and I’d love to hear from you. Please comment at the original blog post if you wish me to see your remarks.