ActivityPub

Some time back, I got sooooooper-interested in the work of IndieWeb and what it might do for connecting blog spaces and social media spaces. Things have quieted down since then, though I’ve been syndicating most posts to the bird site and gathering Webmentions from there.

A few months back, seeing the handwriting on the wall for the bird site, I got a bit more active on Mastodon, but didn’t cut all ties until this week. So now I’m working to move my syndication links and start pulling Webmentions from my new-ish social media home.

Mastodon uses the ActivityPub protocol to allow for the building of federated networks. Right now, that’s mostly being talked about in the context of federation within Mastodon: you can be on mstdn.social and I can be on scholar.social and yet we can still follow one another. However, the implications of ActivityPub are much farther-reaching than that: in theory, at least, any platform adhering to the ActivityPub standard could communicate with any other.

In order to maximize that possibility, the new network my colleagues and I have been standing up is running the Hometown fork of Mastodon; Hometown not only allows its instances to focus more deeply on writing (by allowing longer than 500-character posts) but also provides for connections to more kinds of ActivityPub-based content.

So I’ve fiddled with my settings here at kfitz.info and am testing to see what syndication ends up looking like in this new environment.

Edited to add: That wound up looking like a link to this post, rather than a truly syndicated post. So more fiddling ahead.

A Tale of Two Transitions

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

That’s perhaps an opening so predictable as to wander blithely into the terrain of the cliché, but it captures all too well the weirdness of the last month for someone who’s trying to write about academic leadership in chaotic times. Part of me wishes everyone and everything would settle down long enough for me to get this book revised and out. And part of me recognizes the altogether — “instructive” might be the most diplomatic word I could select here — examples by which I’m surrounded right now, and the ways that they’re challenging me to think hard about the arguments I’m making.

If you pay much attention at all to the higher education press, you’ll no doubt have seen that there’s been a month-long battle going on between MSU’s upper administration and its board of trustees. It’s not entirely clear when hostilities commenced, but they became public when one or more members of the board anonymously leaked a story to the Detroit Free Press saying that they’d given President Samuel Stanley a deadline by which he needed to announce his resignation or be fired. This salvo not only caused grave concern among higher education leaders about the board’s interference in campus operations (see, for instance, the statement released by the president of the Association of American Universities) but also set off waves of anxiety and anger on campus as everyone tried to find out, not to put too fine a point on it, what the fuck was going on.

For a couple of weeks, the battle was carried out via a wide variety of statements and stories, each of which managed to make the situation less clear. Was the president under fire because he’d supported the provost in her decision to relieve the dean of the business school of his duties due to his failure to fulfill his obligations as a mandatory reporter? Or was it that the president had failed in his responsibilities to properly certify the campus’s annual Title IX report? Did it have to do with the ongoing failures of the Office of Institutional Equity to handle cases in a timely fashion? Or was it something else entirely? The radical lack of transparency around what was going on left everyone on and around campus guessing.

It came, however, to seem that the original assumption — that it had to do with the dismissal of the dean of the business school — was the correct one. Senior members of the business school faculty had apparently reached out to key members of the board (and perhaps to other influential donors as well), and in response the board hired an external law firm to investigate the dean’s dismissal. It’s a significant move, not least for a board that refused to commission such an external investigation into how Larry Nassar’s sexual assault of hundreds of young women was abetted by administrative inaction. The board defended its move in an unsigned statement from “the majority” of its members in which they claimed that the review was appropriate because, among other points of support, the preamble to the board’s bylaws states that the board “exercises the final authority in the government of the University.” This quotation leaves out some key details, however:

The Board of Trustees, elected by the voters of the State and responsible to all of the people of Michigan, exercises the final authority in the government of the University, within the limits fixed by the State Constitution. In exercising its responsibility, the Board delegates to the President of the University and through the President to the faculty, appropriate authority and jurisdiction over matters for which they are held accountable by the Board. These matters include educational policy and the development of a strong and efficient organization with which to accomplish the objectives of the University.

“Responsible to all of the people of Michigan” seems like an important bit, as do the limits to their authority and the delegation of “appropriate authority and jurisdiction” to the president and the faculty. “Held accountable by the Board” can’t be overlooked, of course, but one might be within bounds to insist that such accountability run both ways.

In any case, this unsigned statement was delivered to the entire faculty on October 11, just minutes before the Faculty Senate gathered and issued a 93% vote of no-confidence in the board. And on October 13, President Stanley issued his own vote of no-confidence in the form of a video message accompanying his official letter of resignation. That resignation is in the letter qualified by the term “without Good Reason,” making clear per his contract that he’s abandoning a substantial golden parachute as he leaves.

But with good reason or without, the president’s departure and the board’s responsibility for it leave the campus in turmoil. As I write this, we don’t know who our interim president will be, whether there will be a real search for a new president, and what kinds of repercussions campus strategic planning will face. What we do know is that several years of delicate work trying to repair trust on a campus torn by the Nassar horrors has been utterly undone.


The worst of times, indeed. But what’s the other transition?

Alongside my work as a member of the faculty of MSU, I am currently the president of the board of directors of the Educopia Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting communities that develop, share, and preserve knowledge both inside and outside the academy. Educopia is, as its about page describes, a values-enacted organization that strives, among other principles, for “radical transparency coupled with reliability and responsiveness.”

Educopia was founded in 2006 by Katherine Skinner, executive director, and Martin Halbert, then board president, in order to provide administrative and strategic support for collaborations growing across the information management landscape. After 16 years, however, Katherine recognized that Educopia was at risk for one of the problems she’d long seen facing the communities with which she and her colleagues worked: “founder syndrome.” As she noted in her blog post this July in which she announced that she’d be stepping down at the end of September,

Founder-led organizations often begin with visionary leaders who can marshal resources and create a safe, secure atmosphere that appeals to funders and community members. If founders stay too long, though, their organizations tend to become too reliant upon and too influenced by the founders’ personalities, which can lead to stagnation and an unhealthy reciprocal dependence between the founder and the organization.

Replacing such a visionary leader, however, and especially one as successful, respected, and frankly loved as Katherine Skinner is no easy task. I count myself among those who love Katherine and who had a hard time imagining Educopia without her, and I admire beyond words the selflessness and ethical conviction that led her to say that that was precisely why it was time for her to step down.

Katherine began planning for Educopia’s leadership transition at least two years ago, thinking carefully about ways to share her knowledge with other members of the staff, as well as about the work the board needed to do in order to help see the organization into its next stage. In that vein, the board began a development process late last year, plotting out our own needs for growth in this moment of significant change. We worked with Tracy Kunkler and Dee Washington of Circle Forward to think about what the role of the board of directors of an organization committed to equity and collaboration should be, and how we might best support the work of the staff rather than governing from above. In the process of that work, we came to the realization that Educopia might be better served by establishing a shared leadership model rather than by investing leadership in a singular executive, and that such a distribution of authority and responsibility might help make the organization more resilient (and less subject to the turmoil involved in executive transitions) in the years ahead.

And so September ended with celebrations both within Educopia and among its many friends of the extraordinary work that Katherine Skinner did over the years, and with a warm welcome to its three amazing new co-directors, Jessica Meyerson, Katherine Kim, and Raquel Asante. While we have a lot of work ahead, I am honored to get to collaborate with them as the board and the staff figure out the organization’s path forward together.


The best of times, without doubt.

So what am I carrying away from this experience of two radically different leadership transitions, and what does it mean for my ideas about the future of academic leadership?

First, that transparency is not just a good idea but an absolute necessity for organizations that are (or claim to be) “mission-driven.”1 Without transparency there can be no trust, and without trust the people that make up the organization cannot sustain the level of care that the work requires.

Next, that while it’s not often possible to plan for a leadership transition with the level of thoughtfulness that Educopia has done, there are many ways to avoid plunging an institution into chaos by forcing a transition without any preparation. If an institution’s governing board is going to uphold the values it claims to espouse, it must undertake transitions carefully and with respect for the many lives that will be affected in the process.

And finally, that a leadership transition conceived and enacted as a means of sharing power, of creating collective strength, is radically different from one conceived and enacted as a means of coalescing power and of augmenting individual strength. One builds commitment. The other crushes it.

I’m not going to close with Dickens’s last words from A Tale of Two Cities (“It is a far, far better thing that I do” is a little on the nose this week), but rather with his admonition from the beginning of the final chapter:

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

A damaging leadership transition isn’t just damaging in the moment; it does lasting damage to the organization’s ability to function, by twisting the relationships between the people that make up the organization and the people that control it into tortured forms that cannot easily be reshaped. Changing that — reshaping the relations and recovering the institution — will require change throughout the structure. We have an election coming up, in which voters in the state of Michigan will select two members of the MSU board of trustees — but only two of eight, and for eight-year terms. These elections cannot change the relationship between the board and the university without additional pressure. And that pressure can likely only come through organizing and protest at all levels — among faculty and staff, among students, and among voters who want a state university that they can trust.

About which more, I hope, in the weeks ahead.

Venticinque Anni Fa

Edited to add: Uh, whoops. Try Trentacinque Anni Fa. I am OLD.

I’m in Florence for a meeting this week. (I know, I feel bad for me too.) I flew out of Detroit yesterday morning, had a four-hour layover at JFK, and landed in Rome this morning at 7:30. Sped through the airport and hopped on a train to Roma Termini1, where I had a coffee and waited a bit over an hour for my train north. Found my way from Santa Maria Novella to my hotel with only minor difficulties presented by my state of delirium. Checked in and was delighted that they had a room ready for me. Collapsed for an hour and a half, and then forced myself up, took a shower, and went out for a walk.

Lungarno.

It is a ludicrously gorgeous day, so I decided to wander along the river and see what I ran into.

Here’s the thing: 25 35 years ago, I spent six weeks in Florence as part of a summer study abroad program.2 And I haven’t been back since. Someone asked me last week if I remembered much about the city, and my answer was no. I mean, I remember clearly how it felt being here. I remember things I did, things I saw, things I ate. But I don’t really remember the city, not enough to get around.

As I walked today, everything felt half familiar. Not that I’d necessarily seen any of these particular places or things before, but they all had the same sense of being in Florence that my memory offered up.

Piazza Santa Trinita. Definitely in Florence.

But I just let my feet guide the way, in through the small streets near the river, soaking up the general Florenceness of it all.

And then I stopped dead in my tracks.

Mercato del Porcellino.

I remembered this market.

It was partially the vaulted ceiling. Partially the stalls. Mostly the intensity of the smell of leather.

I stopped and looked around, and several pieces came together. The Uffizi are a couple of blocks that way, and the Duomo is about six or so blocks up there. And if I turn here, I’m about a block away from —

The galleries leading to the Poste Italiane.

— the post office. Not the most picturesque of landmarks, though the galleries are lovely. But during that summer in Florence, I was in the post office weekly placing a call home. Ooh, it was something to navigate: you signed in at a desk and gave them the number you were calling. You were directed to a booth and your call was connected. You didn’t talk long, because you knew you’d have to pay on your way out — and no kidding, a five minute call was on the order of $20.3

Poste Telegrafi Telefoni.

Things have changed a bit, needless to say.

Just a bit further down: different mail, different telegraph, different telephones. Needless to say, this was not there in 1988.

Walking back through the galleries, I paused to take this picture:

La Grotta Guelfa.

I don’t know if that restaurant was there 25 35 years ago, but it felt right. The whole area felt right.

I’d tried a few times before I got here to figure out exactly where I stayed when I was here before, but the pensione is long gone, and my fuzzy memory wouldn’t turn anything up. So I turned the corner and started heading back.

And stopped about twenty steps later.

Davanzati Hotel.

The profumerie wasn’t at all familiar. And I did not stay in the Davanzati Hotel. But the doorway, and the stairs…

I climbed the two flights, as steep as in memory, to the hotel entrance, and asked the incredibly sweet young man behind the desk if he spoke English. There was no way I could formulate this on the fly with the bits and pieces of my terrible Italian.

“I have a very funny question,” I said. “Twenty-five years ago, was this a pensione?”

He smiled and nodded.

“The Pensione Te-Ti?”

It was. I told him the story of my summer there, and he told me that the hotel, a bit remodeled and renamed, was still under the same management. I told him what a great experience I’d had then. And he told me that I would always be welcome.

It wasn’t until I got a few blocks away that I realized I hadn’t taken any pictures inside. No matter, though. I think I’ll remember.

Revisiting Neoliberal Tools

I had the pleasure this morning of being part of an excellent townhall on digital American Studies held by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Amerikastudien. My assignment was to think about the critical concerns that DH has surfaced regarding neoliberalism and the contemporary university, my opening thoughts about which are below.

In recent years, a series of critical and theoretical interventions — perhaps most pointedly the 2016 Los Angeles Review of Books essay by David Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia — connected the perceived technocentrism of the digital humanities to the positivist conservatism of higher education and other related institutions, resulting in the field and its proponents being considered “neoliberal tools.”

I’m not here today to make the case that neoliberalism plays no role in the rise of the digital humanities, or frankly of the rise of anything else on university campuses these days. Honestly, to say that any aspect of our institutions bears some relation to the neoliberal is only to point out the water in which we all swim. All of our work — our programs, our courses, our research — is determined by a set of forces that are today hopelessly beholden to the market, whether that work is digital or not.

In the particular case of the digital humanities, however, it’s important to distinguish between, on the one hand, what an institution’s administrations and governing bodies might assume that the digital can do for the humanities, and the digital humanities might do for the institution, and on the other hand, what the digital humanities actually does, and is for. A university’s administration might see DH as a way of increasing the “marketable skills” delivered as part of humanities degrees, in order to ensure that the credential provided appears to be worth paying for. Or a university’s administration might see the grant programs that support many digital humanities projects and assume that DH is a way to increase external funding for an area on campus that doesn’t bring in the dollars in the way that STEM fields do. Or a university’s administration might see the capacity for digital technologies to produce more quantified metrics about scholarship and its impact and assume that digital humanities will foster uptake of such measurement.

All of these assumptions have some basis in truth. Learning how to manipulate a computer is a valuable skill in today’s economy. In the US context, at least, there are more sizable grants available for large-scale digital projects than there are for writing books. And the impact of work in DH is often more readily quantified than is the impact of work in book-based fields. But all of these assumptions hinge on a critical misunderstanding: that DH is about the technology. This is one of the sources of the critique of DH and its neoliberal tools, after all; as Brian Greenspan has noted, “the very taint of technology is enough to convince some conventional humanists that DH must somehow smack of neoliberal tendencies” (Greenspan). The associations of technology with the technocratic, the managerial, and the kinds of “disruptive innovation” that have overtaken our culture are enough to make any good scholar leery about what those technologies are doing in our literature departments.

But DH is not primarily about tool-building, or even archive-building, even though the technologies we use and produce often draw the lion’s share of attention. In my own institution, Michigan State University, where digital humanities is both an academic program and a research unit, we understand DH as a kind of Venn diagram, bringing together both uses of technology to study the questions and materials that are explored within the humanities, and uses of humanities-based modes of inquiry to technology and its uses. But even here, those two parts of the Venn diagram should not be understood as putting technology on one side and theory on the other, and only bringing them together in the overlap. Every choice we make about our uses of technology in DH brings with it — or should bring with it — a reckoning with the social, communal, and ethical issues the technology surfaces.

What I want to ask at this point is whether the work of humanities fields that don’t explicitly focus on digital technologies have engaged to the same extent in critical considerations of their own systems and methods. Because, honestly, all work in the academy is technological, whether those technologies are foregrounded, as in the digital, or not. It’s in part for this reason that Brian Greenspan argues that, “if anything, DH is guilty of making all too visible the dirty gears that drive the scholarly machine, along with the mechanic’s maintenance bill.” That machine may not be driven by industrially-produced code, but it is industrial all the same: the scholarly machine grinds along whenever our tenure and promotion standards demand the production of a published monograph, or whenever we rank some journals as more prestigious than others. Greenspan continues:

DH doesn’t so much pander to the system (at least not more than any other field) as it scandalously reveals the system’s components, while focusing critical attention on the mechanisms needed to maintain them. And that’s precisely its unique and urgent potential: by providing the possibility of apprehending these mechanisms fully, DH takes the first steps toward a genuinely materialist and radical critique of scholarship in the 21st century.

In fact, much of the “disruption” that DH has sought to create in recent years has had little to do with technology per se, and far more to do with this radical critique of the ways that scholars work, their relationships to their institutions, and more. In this vein, we might explore:

  • The Collaborators’ Bill of Rights, which developed a set of ethical principles for crediting the work done on complex projects;
  • The Colored Conventions Project, which defies assumptions about ways that humanities scholars work by always speaking from the point of view of the collective;
  • Mukurtu, which foregrounds Indigenous data sovereignty in the structures of the projects it supports, in keeping with the principles of CARE;
  • Humanities Commons, which seeks to transform the economics and politics not just of research-sharing, but of research community facilitation; and
  • HuMetricsHSS, which is using thinking derived from digital scholarship to insist upon new values-enacted principles for assessing and evaluating scholarly work.
  • and any number of other digital projects that focus on process rather than product, recognizing that they will in some sense never be “done.”

In all of these ways, these projects and others present possibilities for ways of working that not only evade but actively seek to counter the neoliberal university’s tendencies toward the use of quantified metrics for productivity, toward competitive individualism, toward data extraction, and toward market-based notions of research impact. Through projects like these the digital humanities broadly conceived has the potential become not a source of neoliberal tools, but rather a transformative force within the university.

What Is This Meeting For?

I’ve had two ridiculously awesome work events in the last two days, and want to share them with you, because in some ways the excitement I have about them is a bit unexpected, a bit counter-intuitive. And it’s got me rethinking my approach to remote work and team building.

The first of these events was a Zoom Q&A session that formed part of the review being done for my potential reappointment as Director of DH@MSU. This session was stressful to prepare for, in part because of its interview-like structure. The committee overseeing this review asked me to provide a current CV and to prepare a range of statements and reflections, both looking back on the last five years and developing a vision for the next five. Under normal circumstances, we’d have scheduled a time during which I’d give a brief talk hitting the highlights from those documents and then would field questions from attendees. Given all things COVID, they instead asked me to record the brief talk part, which was made available with the written materials, and then we scheduled an hour on Zoom for Q&A.

A huge number of colleagues from across DH@MSU, as well as from my research unit, MESH, were invited to read/watch the materials and then come participate in the Q&A. I had no idea who would come and what they’d want to ask, whether it would be a grilling about my failures or a questioning about my vision. It could have been anything. In fact, I joked with the committee chair before the event that we’d missed an opportunity to call it an AMA. It turned out — not surprisingly, given the general levels of over scheduling and burnout on campus — to be a smaller group than it could have been, but those colleagues who came had fantastic, generative questions that wound up turning what could have been a test for me into a highly collegial conversation in which we thought together about our collective future. It was enormous fun, and I came away with some great ideas for work that we might do together in the year ahead.

The second of these events, which took place the next day, was a meeting of sorts of the MESH team. We’ve been wrestling with some issues, including that team members working on one of our projects often don’t have the opportunity to learn about what’s going on with other projects. Some of these issues are just typical growing pains, as a new unit expands and matures. Others of them derive from the challenges of remote work, and our inability to have some of those informal hallway chats that would be part of a more standard co-located working arrangement. And our typical response to these communication issues of late has been to apply MOAR ZOOM, but it’s become less and less clear over time what exactly all our meetings were for.

As a result, we agreed to meet up in our team channel in Teams for several hours on a Thursday afternoon to have a semi-asynchronous text-based chat about team culture and how we want to think about our work together. The team channels in Teams (sigh) are both conducive to this kind of conversation and not; the fact that a top-level post is called a “conversation” and that one “replies” to that initial post lends itself to a multi-threaded discussion. On the other hand, new replies change the order of conversations and notifications can bounce you out of a window you’re typing in, and keeping up with what you’ve seen and what you haven’t is uneven. The interface, in other words, is a little chaotic.

In fact, our experience was utterly, utterly chaotic, and yet the most energizing experience I’ve had in some time. New questions and replies flew so fast that it was a bit dizzying, but I found myself more focused and engaged than I’ve been in a meeting in the longest time. Even more importantly, we got far more input from far more voices than we do in a standard video-based meeting, and we’ve come away with a record of a ton of new ideas for things we might try.

Together, these experiences have me thinking about the ways my colleagues and I connect with one another, and in particular the reasons that we default to meetings as means of communication (and the reasons we then dread those meetings), and the times when other channels of communication — written documents, real-time chat, etc — might be better ways to go. I’m also pondering — with the help of GitLab’s crazy extensive guide to all-remote work — new ways to ensure that our increasingly dispersed team can keep the collaborative energy that I felt this week going.

I don’t have any brilliant conclusions as yet. This post is mostly a placeholder for my own very much in-process thinking, which I’m looking forward to continuing to explore in the weeks ahead.

#ENG818

Over the last several months, I’ve regularly bugged folks on the Twitters for suggestions for a new class I’ve been putting together for this semester, called “Peculiar Genres of Academic Writing.”

The initial ask.

This is a course I’ve wanted to teach for eons, both because it fills a gaping need that I felt in my own graduate education, and because I’ve longed to get back to teaching writing.

More begging.

Putting this course together has been a joy, not least in getting to read through so many great examples of those peculiar genres as folks shared them with me.

Begging for blogs.

I’m enormously grateful for all the suggestions everyone made, as well as for the excitement that I heard out there every time I mentioned the class. I promised repeatedly that I’d share the syllabus once it was done (or at least “done”).

I’m a huge advice writing nerd.

Today I finally got the course site published, so the syllabus is now available to all. (Some of the readings are not, alas. But I’ll be happy to share what I can.)

Thanks to everyone who contributed their thoughts to my planning. Problems in the syllabus are all my responsibility, of course. I’ll look forward to updating as things evolve.

Plans

For the last several years, I’ve had a daily planning routine. While I’d begun that routine in the Moleskine that was always nearby, I moved it onto my computer about a year ago, taking advantage of Obsidian‘s daily notes capabilities. I set up a template for those notes that allowed me to capture a few morning thoughts, a sense of the day’s schedule, a few key priorities, and then any later notes from meetings or events during the rest of the day.

My Obsidian daily notes template.

It’s been great having this reliable space for thoughts and notes, but it hasn’t been so great for planning at the level of the day. For one thing, my actual calendar is elsewhere — in Outlook, where it needs to remain so that my colleagues can find times to meet with me as needed. For another, my actual task lists and projects are elsewhere, too — in Things, which works extremely well for me. Beyond that, though, the daily notes version of my schedule and goals more or less records a plan already made, rather than allowing me the necessary distance and vision to build that plan.

I did some poking around looking for a planner app that might allow me to bring together my calendar, my task list, and my notes in more flexible ways. Ideally, I’d want to be able to assign tasks to available time on the calendar, to take notes on events, and to keep tabs on progress toward whatever goals I might have. Unfortunately, I haven’t found an app whose developers’ brains work the ways that mine does. (Yet. I could still imaging finding the right thing.)

Finally, a tweet from Nyasha Junior made me reconsider my approach.

@NyashaJunior, asking for planner recommendations.

I read through the piles of excellent responses she received, and explored a lot of great-looking paper planners. And in the process it hit me that what I was looking for was something with the flexibility of paper and the convenience of the digital — which made me start thinking about my reMarkable.

I originally bought the reMarkable in order to have a focused, paper-like environment for PDF reading. Since then, the release of the Zotero beta for iOS has taken over most of that space; the workflows for extracting highlights and notes into Obsidian are just too good to ignore. But the reMarkable remains unbeatable for both pen-on-paper feel and for single-tasking focus: whatever document you’re in is where you are, with no apps or notifications to distract you.

So I started searching for, and found, a reMarkable-based planner. In some ways — technological ways — it’s super simple: it’s a giant PDF. But that simplicity disguises enormous flexibility. Careful linking allows you to move from pages representing calendar months to pages for weekly and daily planning, as well as additional pages for goal setting, project planning, habit tracking, and more.

It doesn’t connect to anything, except my brain and my hand. So each day’s plan requires me to copy my calendar events and my tasks — but at least so far, the act of doing so seems to open up possibilities for the rest of the day, allowing me to think about how the pieces fit together. It’s a bit reflective, and it allows me to doodle in ways that planning apps don’t.

I’m literally one day in with this new system, so it remains to be seen how it works over the long haul, and how I might maintain the connectedness of my Obsidian notes while having this separate space for planning. But so far I’m encouraged, and thinking about how a small return to longhand exploration might shape the days ahead.

23 July 2021, 09:51

I’m in the early pages of Jenn Shapland’s gorgeous My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, which brings the methods and subjects of literary criticism and biography and memoir together in lyrical and deeply personal ways. At one point, Shapland comments on McCullers’s loving relationships with women:

There are so many crushes in a lifetime, so many friendships that mix desiring-to-have with wanting-to-be. It’s the combination of wants that makes these longings confusing, dangerous, and queer.

Shapland 20

This took my breath away, not least for the way its description dragged me back to the days of my MFA program, and to the boy I spent those three years desperately in love with, a love that was only partially and never sufficiently requited, that left me simultaneously heartbroken and ashamed of that heartbreak.

It took years after it all ended for me to figure out that on some level I didn’t want to be with him, I wanted to be him. I wanted the boarding school and the Ivy League education, the rakish grin, the scruffy rejection-but-not-really of style. I wanted the ridiculous vocabulary, the encyclopedic knowledge of his favorite writers, all of whom were so much better than my faves. I wanted the ability he had to insist on taking his time rather than rushing into forced production, the compulsion and the patience to hold himself to aesthetic standards that I found both impressive and impossible.

I’m not sure I would have recognized that longing as queer, even once I figured it out, but I do now see a kind of queerness in it. And I definitely see danger. It took a very long time for me to recognize that not only would being near him never make me into him, but that it would inevitably make being me seem a source of disappointment. It took even longer, far too long, to shed that disappointment.