Dame Eleanor Hull

The revision process

Today’s main task was working on an R&R.

First step: outline the paper as I wrote it, because I couldn’t find the original outline. I’m sure I had one, but it’s not in computer files, not in research journal, not in notebook;  all I can find are primary quotations and an annotated bibliography.

Next step: in the outline, strike out everything the reviewer thought I should lose, then highlight in yellow the parts to develop, and in blue the parts that now need to move somewhere else.

Step three: wonder if there is anything left of my paper.

Step four: start an outline for the revision, which includes quite a lot of material supporting the opposite point of view to the one I’m arguing. I almost convinced myself to argue for that point of view. But I can’t quite get there. I still like my original point.

Pause to consider whether this is because I’m an atheist and cannot be convinced by any religious/supernatural explanation of events when there’s a rationalist one available. Probably. This is somewhat problematic when dealing with medieval texts.

Further pause to contemplate the broader implications of this problem. Obviously a scholar needs some distance, but at what point does the distance become so great as to generate confusion rather than objectivity?

Remember Jill Mann and feel comforted.

Contemplate the distance in achievement between myself and Jill Mann, and slump again.

Think, not for the first time, that if I could meet the people I study, I would probably not like them, and they would certainly find me almost incomprehensible.

Return to the outline. Compare two things and try to draw conclusions from the exercise. Find a number of similarities that seem like they ought to mean something, but which somehow don’t add up to much.

Give up and get ready to go to the gym. Have insight! Scribble it on a yellow sticky. Work out. Fix dinner. Type in the insights from the sticky note.

Discover that they, too, somehow fail to add up to much.

It’s an R&R, not a rejection. There must be a pony in here somewhere.

On perspective, again

I made such a long comment at Undine’s that I thought I should bring it over here.

Caveat: this is definitely about the individual. If you are in a truly oppressive environment, you may need to work for change, or change jobs, or at least not beat yourself up for not being able to manage your job via managing your feelings. But if you’re in an only ordinarily difficult situation—budget cuts, lots of students, wondering how to get your own writing done, feeling that other people are somehow coping better—then here’s what I have to offer.

Here’s my suggestion for living in academia with less anxiety: don’t be a perfectionist. Just do your work. Don’t feel that everything has to be done right now, or perfectly. Write first. Then prep and grade. Go to the meeting and participate. Fill in the forms when you have time (will your students really not have books if the bookstore gets the order form tomorrow or next week? This is the age of Amazon; your students may not even go to the campus bookstore). If you have to fill in one of those forms saying how you spend your classroom time, guess, rather than trying to figure out what you really do. Appreciate your students, the ones who try, the ones you can help. Don’t think about the ones who are annoying. Similar advice re colleagues. Go home and do something else that matters: raise your kids, read a book, plant/cook/eat good food, listen to music, learn a language just because.

I admit that it really helps to have married out of academe. When I go home, I can hear about big-corporation work hassles instead of continuing to think about beleaguered-university budget troubles. Nonetheless, I think a lot of anxiety about work is self-inflicted. I am not saying “check out mentally” or “refuse committee work.” It’s more “keep work in its place; think about the big picture.” Doing my job is important to me. But I don’t want to worry about doing my job. And I am not going to do it 24/7.

People’s big pictures vary, and this is why academia is tricky—it is, or can be, like artistry. That line about no one wishing on their deathbed that they’d spent more time on the job—I think artists and novelists may well wish that they’d produced one more painting or novel. If you feel like that about your research, then spending more time on the writing job is a wise use of time. If what you care about is teaching, then maybe you do want to write up the detailed comments for everyone, in hopes that it will make a difference to someone. But do you really need to do the detailed comments AND work on research every day AND knock yourself out planning initiatives that may or may not get funded? I think it’s fine to pull your own weight—but no more—and refuse guilt trips and flattery trips.* What parts of your job matter to you? Do those well enough to meet your own (reasonable) expectations—do enough of the other parts well enough so that you aren’t making other people’s lives difficult—and let go of the sense that you have to do everything perfectly.


*Flattery trip: “Oh, you’d be so good at this, we really neeeeeed you.” The answer to that is “We need to give someone else a chance to develop those skills,” if you have already served, or are serving elsewhere.

[not Buffalo Bill]

”                                                                                                    Jesus
he was a handsome man
                                                  and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death”
You’d better like him a whole lot, because there were a lot of people who would have liked to keep him and those laughing blue eyes around for awhile longer.

Maintaining perspective

I’m participating in the TLQ group again. The last two weeks have had suggestions for thinking about maintaining perspective in the face of trouble which, taken together, have prompted me to post my thoughts here rather than in the comments there, because they turned out to be a long preamble to a tale.

Taking care of oneself, and having a home life that is separate from work life, provides space. As JaneB noted, sometimes it’s easier to connect with family (children/spouse) than with one’s own self/ house/ pet/ non-human preoccupation. So pay attention to the people or critters you live with. If you live alone, take care of yourself as you would a friend.

One thing I notice about academics who are very productive is that they don’t seem to entertain doubts about the importance of what they’re doing. They don’t say, “Well, I’m not curing cancer,” or “well, not that many people really care about this.” They think they’re making a difference to the world, and that includes the people who do literary research in earlier periods. Some of them may justify such work by the idea that it makes them, or other people, better teachers, but whatever way they find to think about it, they think their research matters. They think it makes the world a better (more interesting, better-informed, more thoughtful, more enlightened) place.

We’re trained to question everything, including rhetoric and values. But maybe we’re overdoing the questioning. Maybe we need to give ourselves some answers. “My work is important because . . . ” and “Though small, my audience is significant because . . . ” and even just “I love my work and I can get paid for it, so someone thinks it’s significant and I think it’s a good thing to do work I love.”

And indeed, it is a good thing to do work you love. I know there has been a shift in advice for young people, so that it’s now less “Find your passion” and more “Find something you’re decent at and can stand, get really good at that, and see if it becomes your passion, or if you can pursue your passion as a leisure activity.” Even if we give that advice to our students (and heaven knows following your passion to grad school in the humanities is not such a good option these days), why should those of us who are already academics belatedly follow it? Why take on Puritan notions (or are they Romantic?) about suffering and not having fun? Why be a tortured writer (artist, academic) if it’s possible to choose to be a happy one who has fun with writing, who dances with the Muse in the moonlight, who gets to have conversations with famous long-dead writers (artists, whoever)?

So what do you love about your job? I hope there’s something. I love research and writing. I have a lesser but still notable love for teaching so long as I have at least minimally engaged students. I don’t mind committee work so long as I feel it is productive.

What I don’t like: I dislike the climate of anxiety that has clouded LRU for the past few years: less and less money, low enrollments, re-shaping programs, low faculty morale. I don’t like trying to gauge how much I, personally, need to worry.

What I am doing: I am trying very hard not to get sucked into other people’s anxieties. Some of them are very real, especially for those who are single or partnered with other people who work for LRU. Since I am fortunate enough to have “married out,” I think it’s better for me to avoid taking on the anxieties that many of my colleagues feel. I sympathize. I acknowledge that they have real things to worry about. But I, personally, don’t have to worry in the same way they do, so why should I torment myself with their worries? I’m going to do me, and let them do them. This is not saying I have no worries. This is saying I want to assess the things that I need to worry about and not worry about ones that aren’t my individual problem.

I’m also consciously saying, “The work will still be there tomorrow, and now it is time to get some exercise/sleep/relaxation/food—to have a life that is more than work. The students can wait another day or two for their papers. The world will not come to an end if I file that form next week instead of tomorrow.” Along with over-questioning, I think we’re also over-conscientious. Sometimes there are hard deadlines. Other times, we expect too much of ourselves. How much of such expectations comes from our job guidelines, how much from feeling competitive with other colleagues (if you made it through a Ph.D., you are probably fairly competitive, at least about some things), how much from early training in being a good girl?

What I wonder about: can I make people pay rent in my head? That is, if I’m thinking about something that annoys me, can I find a way to make those thoughts productive? Can they spur me to do something differently? Can I learn from people I’m angry at or jealous of?

Finally, I’m reminded of a few bits of advice. Long ago, I had my own copy of Women in Academe: Outsiders in the Sacred Grove. (I gave it to a friend who, a couple of years later, quit a tenure-track job. Hmmm.) I re-read it last year. It’s dated, and yet not nearly so dated as you might expect. The advice given, about focusing on research and networking, is excellent, and I wish I had paid more attention to it when I was in the early years of my career. I was more interested in work-life balance, at the time, when I should have been thinking about work. Anyway, I will paraphrase, since I no longer have the book to hand: what is important is that you get your work done, and make sure that you and your family are fed, rested, and loved. What is not important is that you cook all your own food, clean your own house, or make your kids’ Halloween costumes by hand. Ms Mentor has similar advice: “Be good to yourself. . . . Do not diet—starvation will make you grouchy and boring. Buy frozen foods; cherish the microwave. . . . BE ADEQUATE, NOT PERFECT. Tape that motto to your fridge. . . . Routinize. Simplify.” (Emily Toth, Ms Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia [Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1997], p. 75)


I saw a reference to The Epistemology of the Closet and thought for a moment that it was another Marie Kondotype guide, or at least a study of such advice books.

I may be spending too much time [worrying about not getting around to] de-cluttering the basement.

It’s not an epiphany

(And if it is, ur doin it rong.)

This article really pissed me off. “[M]enopause delivers a mind-blowing mid-life recalibration – one with a valuable message of growth and expansion.” Uh, what? My mind is still here, unblown. Life trundles along the way it has for years. Maybe it’s being a professor: growth and expansion come with the territory. New students, new ideas, new courses (or new ways of doing the old ones), new research.

“[F]emale bodies are powerful intuitive barometers and mine was trying to tell me something.” Probably every body is a powerful intuitive barometer, whatever its sex. I count on mine to tell me when I’m hungry, thirsty, sleepy, and so on.

“I routinely put others first which meant racing through my life over-achieving and under-prioritising me. Exhausted and running on empty, letting go of my expectations of me would be the first positive move.” Okay, now you’re finally getting to your problems. Don’t suggest that those are everyone’s problems. (And by the way: dangling modifier. That irritates me, too.) You could have set a higher priority on yourself at any point, however; there’s nothing magical about menopause. Maybe that’s what got your attention, but in someone else’s life, it might have been a parent’s death or a child’s starting school, a change of jobs or a milestone birthday. I think Franklin’s realizations are not uncommon in midlife, actually, but the menopause thing is coincidental. I know women who went through menopause very early due to medical treatments or just because it happens early in their families, and they pretty much carried on as usual until their fifties, when the reality that life is short became more than just a phrase to follow with “so eat dessert first” or “don’t drink bad wine.” Men do this too. What do you think the sports cars are about?

“In menopause our body roars. All these years it has put up and shut up and now will not tolerate abuse or disrespect any longer. This commotion is simply a demand by your newly awake self for quality not quantity, for re-evaluation and re-balancing. Perhaps (when your time comes) you plan to put your hands over your ears? Think again, there is nothing so primal and immediate as your body’s hormonal call to action.” Our body? Speak for yourself. You have yours, I have mine. I wouldn’t say that mine put up and shut up. It has made its needs clear for decades. I treat it kindly. My self is as awake (or maybe not-awake) as it has been for years. I can’t say that I’m experiencing a hormonal call to action. Hot flashes, yes, but they don’t move me to much action beyond reaching for an ice pack. I always thought I’d enjoy getting up to room temperature, that it would make a pleasant change from being freezing most of the time. The problem isn’t the hot, it’s the flash, the sensation of being suddenly dumped into a sauna. I do not experience them as power surges, just as a passing nuisance. They definitely do not roar.

“Post-menopause needs renaming and reclaiming for what it truly is, a magnificent time of curiosity, creativity and rank. It’s not surprising that some societies have been threatened by this natural female evolution to leader and mentor. In Pagan times of Goddess Worship, female tribal elders were respected and celebrated but with the introduction of Christianity came the brutal persecution of middle-aged women as witches and heretics. As feminist history explains, older women were simply channeling their menopausal force to intervene in an oppressive culture that undermined female wisdom and equality.” Gag me. Where to start? Is there seriously any historical evidence for a pagan feminist paradise before the coming of Christianity? I used to have this argument with my mother, who blamed Christianity for everything that afflicted women (in her later years; when I was little, she was as conventional as they come: we both wore white gloves to church). In the medieval and early modern periods, an appalling number of women died before they made it to menopause. I can hardly bear to tour medieval churches any longer, despite the lovely architecture, because of all the plaques and gravestones from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, memorializing women who died in their thirties after bearing nine, or eleven, children, more than half of whom preceded them to the grave. Such a waste. At least Catholicism offered the option of the nunnery, where a woman could have some sort of intellectual life, and not have to go through childbirth.

Probably I’m simply the wrong audience for this sort of essay. I never went for the Powerful Female Experience rhetoric, whether it was attached to menstruation, childbirth, menopause, or any other natural process. There are lots of bodily processes that we could bond over. Some are universal human experiences, shared with men, and even with other animals. How come we never talk about the profound experience of digestion, and how at one with the universe we feel when we are replete after a good meal, or about the pleasures of relieving a full bladder, or making one’s mark on the world by taking a dump? Oh, wait, those aren’t mystical; they have nothing to do with the process of bringing another life into the world, which is the real power of women. Of course. And that must mean that I, as a childless-by-choice woman, am not a real woman. Never mind my double-x chromosomes, my years of living in a female body with (almost) all that that implies, my experiences with sexism overt and covert. I’m not sure that I’m even allowed a powerful menopause, in this model: if I haven’t sacrificed myself to others, if I haven’t given birth and suffered sleep deprivation while looking after a newborn and exhausted myself raising children while having a career, then probably what I’m going through isn’t really the hormonal wake-up call that Ms Franklin is on about.

OK, then, fine, never mind. Nonetheless, I think it’s sad if you haven’t managed to put yourself first before your mid-fifties. I thought that was an affliction of my mother’s generation, not of my own. I have a variety of friends (women and men) who have children. A few inhabit the martyr role. Most of them think about their own needs as well as those of their children. The second set are happier. How’s that for a powerful human experience?

“Happiness exists, and it’s important; why refuse it? You don’t make other people’s unhappiness any worse by accepting it; it even helps you to fight for them.”



Yes, done

I have submitted the last chunk of the MMP (whatever number it is) that remained homeless.

One piece is in print. The companion-piece is in print. Another piece is that terribly tardy R&R to which I shall now turn my attention.

I started work on this project seven years ago, which seems like an unconscionable amount of time. However, the project, which began by seeming simple, turned into the above-listed four essays. What’s more, during those seven years I have also written three other unrelated articles. One is in print, one is forthcoming (proofs have been corrected), and there’s another R&R, which will be the second thing up, after the super-tardy one. Somehow it feels like I haven’t done anything but the MMP-1 (3?) for years, but that’s not true. If I can get this one accepted, and get my two R&Rs done and in print, I will have averaged a respectable one article per year for the past seven years. It’s just that they clump up oddly instead of appearing tidily spaced on my CV.

One lesson from all this is to do your R&R as soon as it comes. At the time I got the one on the MMP-3 (or 1?), I couldn’t stand to put down whatever I was working on (I think it was the just-submitted chunk of the MMP, but maybe it was a different piece altogether), because I was sure it was almost done and I was afraid of losing momentum. But “almost done” can drag on, and on.

And on.

I feel like doing something to celebrate, though I have a stack of papers to grade and a lawn to mow. If this essay gets accepted, there will be champagne all around, IRL for sure, and a virtual party with both a chocolate fountain and a champagne fountain for my blog-friends and readers (neither calories nor hangover for the virtual stuff!). I don’t really like being drunk (ask a glass of water . . . ) but finishing off seven years of servitude to this project (fingers crossed; maybe I haven’t done it yet) seems to demand getting drunk as a lord. Or something epoch-making. Suggestions?

Seven hours!

I slept straight through the night last night. I can’t remember the last time I did that.

It may be down to the change in weather. But if it was the result of a four-mile walk, followed by pizza, wine, Oreos, and staying up late to finish a jigsaw puzzle . . . well, I think I could get used to that lifestyle.

(Most of those things are fairly routine in my life, so it’s probably the weather.)

Done? ? ???

Earlier this week, I gave a draft of the MMP-1 to a colleague to read. Since then, I have continued to flesh out footnotes and tweak bits and pieces. Now I need to print it out and look for the sorts of things one never sees on-screen. I expect I’ll find a few more things to tweak, and my colleague may have suggestions. I certainly hope he’ll catch any places where I have repeated myself, or, worse, left out a key point I was sure I’d made because I made it in some earlier draft, and in my head it’s still there. As I always say to students, “I’m sure it makes sense in your head, but I have to look at what made it onto paper.”

At any rate, I think I may actually submit this piece again, soon. I’d love to be done with it. I’ve lived with it for a long time, and enjoyed working on it, but the researching and writing (and re-writing) of it has been like another dissertation. I could have written a book in the time. Sadly, I don’t think this piece is a book. It’s one of those dissertations that gets boiled down into a single solid article.

I can’t decide if it’s brilliant or a serious case of over-documenting something nobody else will care about. It is, at any rate, documented to a fare-thee-well. There is no hand-waving.

Have I learned anything from this process? Like, how to get a sense of the scope of a project, or how to outline it so as not to have to re-write multiple times, or anything useful like that? I’m going to be contemplating this question for awhile. I suspect that I’m going to go on being myself: struggling to see the big picture; unable to imagine starting out with a topic like “perceptions of time in the Middle Ages” or “queenship,” but needing to look at a single text, or manuscript, to see what I think is interesting about it, and then needing to compare it to other similar texts or manuscripts; pulling on a thread that turns out to be both very long and attached to the tail of something with claws and teeth; researching in all directions instead of limiting myself to what I already know. I guess I know more, now, which might be handy for the next project, unless it goes in all different directions again (which it assuredly will; the next thing already addresses topics I haven’t read about before).

Sometimes I feel delighted to send an essay out into the world. This time, I’m hopeful but wary. If projects are children, the MMP-1 has had a hard time in adult life, and has sucked up a lot of my resources; some of the younger kids have suffered because of the attention this one needed. But it can’t live with me forever. It needs to go out and try again.

Where I put that stack . . .

A few weeks ago I cleared my desk (and other surfaces) by creating stacks of paper in the guest room, with the plan that I would sort them out when I was procrastinating on grading. Well, this weekend we have an unexpected but delightful house guest. I shoveled the stacks into the drawers of an empty file cabinet. This post is to remind me where they are, when in a few weeks or months I am cursing my inability to find this or that important bit of paper that has gone missing.

Footnotes proceed. I am up to number 70 on this my first pass through the document, though I will still need to go back for some that require more searching through files and shelves.