detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Tuesday, September 24, 2002

: . “Reconstructing ‘Past Presents’”:

I have just been “hired” by one of my professors to “edit” her book on Zora Neale Hurston. “You need to be paid for what you’re doing,” one of her students tells me today on my way to her office. “What, for the abuse?” I ask him. “For the exploitation,” he answers. I then gave him a knowing smile and went on my way. The (paid) job, though hardly a breeze, seems simple enough: correcting minor errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation; substituting better turns of phrase and mots justes for accidental malapropisms and infelicities; and ensuring the accuracy of countless citations. I am barely “hooked on phonics” (as this blog all too clearly indicates) but I believe I am up to the task. But like all things in (my) life, this task is more complicated than it appears. It is in fact deeply mired in academic melodrama.
For example, my professor’s publisher expects her book within three months and some of her colleagues in the department are hoping that she won’t finish on time. These colleagues -- white liberal senior faculty members with outmoded notions of what constitutes proper historical scholarship-- have done everything in their power, from nasty letters to the dean to a smear campaign among graduate students to keep my professor from getting tenure. The kindly dean, however, has promised to grant her tenure on one condition: her book needs to be in press by the end of the school year. This is where I enter the picture. My professor’s book is a work of history in the “linguistic turn” (I’ve always thought that the “linguistic turn” is so ten years ago but apparently it hasn’t quite been superceded by a new academic fashion). That is, it needs to be rich both in theoretical elaboration and in empirical detail. Her book also needs to be sufficiently “original” to be noticed among other books churned out yearly by the Zora Neale Hurston industry. My professor thinks that my “literary background” could help her achieve some of her ambitions. This is all incredibly flattering, “affirming” even, but I am hardly a “theory head” -- I do not stalk conferences and lecture series awaiting to be intoxicated by the latest gaseous emanations from Verso and Routledge published authors. Besides, my professor has many brilliant students who can make me feel smaller than I already feel without much effort. Also, I am worried about the strange dynamic that all this will introduce in what has been a conventional teacher-student relationship. I am, after all, still her student and all through this semester I expect her to impartially grade my papers as much as she expects me to honestly evaluate her work. And I am having some drama of my own to further complicate matters. This evening, after class, I cried like a little girl as I told her how worthless I’ve been feeling these past few weeks. I wasn’t able to help it; evil forces ganged up on me -- the change in the weather, an unsatisfied craving for chocolate, the news of impending war, the mental fatigue caused by a compelling but badly written book. (A word of advice for the emotional types out there: never ever cry in front of any authority figure and do everything in your power to keep your inner pity party from pouring out of your world. People are cruel; they will find a way to use your displays of vulnerability to their advantage. In public always try to appear like a tower of strength.) And so on. Of course, my professor has seen her share of needy, unstable students; she knew well enough not to waste her energies on someone else’s tiresome mood swing. She simply paused, said a few comforting words, and handed me a chapter of her manuscript. The chapter needs a lot of work. The whole manuscript has just gone through peer-review and all its ideas have been upturned into a frightful mess. I’ve been reading and re-reading the chapter for hours. I am a push over.

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