Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Scholarly Interview (sorta)

One of my students from last semester just e-mailed me, asking if I could be his "scholar interview" that he needs for ENGL 102 (i.e., the course he has to take after passing mine). I was, of course, happy to oblige. On the off chance any of my answers might be interesting, I post them here. -

What kinds of writing do scholars in your field do?
Writing in my field (English literature) can be split into "scholarship" and "literary criticism." Scholarship is largely concerned with finding out new historical, biographical, or textual facts about a particular author or literary movements. (By "textual facts" I mean new critical editions of a work, and so forth.) Literary criticism is mostly what I do -- it's concerned with reading authors in new ways and coming up with new interpretations of authors and literary movements.


What writing conventions are specific to and important to your field? How did you learn those conventions?Probably the most basic convention is MLA style -- that's relatively unique to literary scholars and critics. Other conventions include the type of evidence we can use. As a field within the humanities, obviously testing hypotheses or acquiring data -- with some notable exceptions -- is outside our purview. Instead, we are expected to read an author's complete works, possibly reading things that may have influenced him, and of course exhaustively explore the relevant scholarship on that author.

Strangely enough, scholars in my field aren't generally actually trained in our conventions. Graduate students are largely expected to absorb those conventions through osmosis. For my part, although I've always been a good writer, I didn't properly internalize my field's conventions until during my dissertation research when I read (literally) hundreds of articles.


What was your first experience of writing a scholarly article like? What did you learn through that experience?
Well, my first published scholarly article took either 1-month or years to write, depending on how you count. The actual draft took only 1 month of manic writing. In the month prior to that, however, I had presented my topic to a conference in Leeds, England, and that experience helped me realize what needed excising from my argument and what deserved elaboration.

Even that, though, was hardly my first attempt to write the article. Two years prior to 2016, I had written -- and submitted for peer review -- a previous version of my argument. My reviewers were kind, mostly, but quite firm that the article wasn't up to snuff. Well, I then spend the next two years thinking about my argument until, after knowing the secondary literature much better in 2016 than I did in 2014, I finally wrote the finished article in August 2016. Only about 5% of the original 2014 text, by the way, survived into that final 2016 published version.

What I learned from the experience, as you might imagine, is the importance of dogged perseverance.


What kinds of writing do you most often in your work?
Literary criticism for peer-reviewed academic journals, largely. However, I did just do two semi-scholarly articles for The Baum Bugle, the official magazine for the International Wizard of Oz society. That kind of writing is fun because it allows me to address a different (read: non-academic) audience. Academics can be stuffy, y'know.


What expectations do you have for students who are learning to write in your field?
For undergrads, I mostly expect two things: (1) some original thought, and (2) close reading of the text. If you can make interesting claims while using evidence from the text and anticipating the most likely counter-arguments, you're well on your way in my book.

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