August seems to be my season for clearing up and throwing away. Last year, it was my index cards; this year, it’s a lot more stuff.

Yesterday I went to campus and revised my office. I have long wished that “Changing Rooms” would come and give my office a makeover. I can see when something is badly designed, but not what to do about it. I don’t like the placement of my office door, or maybe it’s just the position of the door relative to where the computer has to be because of outlets and connections. One problem was too much furniture. When I moved in, there were two desks, seven half-height bookcases, and a tier of attached-to-the-wall shelves. Then I acquired an ergonomic computer table, and at some point a large table moved in. I hadn’t requested it; it just appeared. So things piled up on it, as they do.

I evicted one of the desks and a wobbly chair yesterday, and I’m wondering about that table. I moved it, anyway, and I may live with it in the new spot for a few weeks before deciding on whether it should go, too. Since I could see the bottom shelves of one of the bookcases (six of the seven are now stacked up, that is, in three groups of two), I started editing. A shelf of old PMLAs went into the recycling, as did a batch of LRU faculty bulletins I didn’t know I had. (Sir John said, “Think of the historians of 20th-century American academia five hundred years from now!” They’ll have to find someone else’s copies.) I left a lot of books I haven’t cracked in years on the “Free Books” table outside the TA offices. Then I could consolidate the other shelves. It was exceedingly therapeutic. I still need to have another go at the file cabinet (I did a little with it last fall), but the room is much improved.

Today it was the turn of my study at home, and this time I started with the file cabinet. I don’t like filing cabinets anyway; either I don’t put stuff in, or I never take it out. It’s something about drawers, and depth, and loose papers. I do a little better with household records than with academic papers. I thought I’d try putting the academic things in binders, in hopes that I’d respond better to codices.

Out of a full drawer, I retained two folders and put the rest of what I wanted to save into a single 1-1/2 inch binder; all the rest went into the recycling bin. Handouts from Kalamazoos past, reading notes taken a decade ago, rejected drafts of papers, gone, gone, gone. It was interesting to see past bits of my life go by. I kept notes on Pearl from a graduate class, but tossed old student presentations on same. I decided to keep the fairly positive comments from a noted scholar on one of my dissertation chapters, when I sought feedback about how to turn it into an article. Though I doubt I will return to it now, it seems like bad karma to throw out encouragement. There’s a gap in my career, because of having been not very well after I got tenure; I had a lot of conference papers and partially-developed things that got put aside, and then stayed in those folders in those drawers, with the printouts of bibliography, and the comments and additions in different colored inks. I tossed them all. If I were to go back to any of those projects, I’d have to start fresh. My working methods have changed, the bibliographies are out of date (and far more easily assembled now), my critical allegiances have shifted. In short, I’ve moved on.

So now I have a drawer into which I can put some of the paper that has been filling boxes in my study. What’s more, after tossing the PMLAs yesterday, it dawned on me that with J-STOR, there is no reason to keep more than the most recent five years of Speculum. So the recycling bin here is filled with old Specula (I wonder what the garbage men will think), and the study bookshelves are reconfigured (always dangerous; I hope I will still be able to find books).

I’m generally very bad at getting rid of stuff, but this felt great. It was hard to get started, in both rooms, and early stages required a lot of breaks; but at a certain point, momentum takes over. I especially liked getting rid of things I don’t think I’ll ever work on again. I begin to have some dim idea of what it feels like to leave academia for a new career. I can’t imagine doing so myself, and yet I can imagine a sense of euphoria rising as you walk away from the shelves and cabinets, ready to start over in a mental if not physical somewhere-else.

I know things will pile up again. There will be print-outs, more books, more drafts, more bits of paperwork that I keep because I can’t decide whether or not I need them or intend to act on them. I’m not making any grand resolutions about turning over a new leaf. But it’s nice to have a little more space.

4 thoughts on “Excavating

  1. I agree! One of the best "worst" things that has happened to me, office-wise, was having a flood two years ago (from my ceiling; I'm on the top of a tower!) which required moving everything off of the floor. As the floor had been covered with books, notes, and furniture, this was quite an accomplishment. Once out, it was clear that not everything needed to come back in. What a relief to throw so much away!

  2. The euphoria of shedding lots of unwanted ephemera is great. Glad that your clearing season is going so well — I'm just starting on mine and it's slow going!

  3. Gah. As a one-time bookseller I cringe at the journal throw-out. Yes, JSTOR; but not everyone has it and someone would have bought a run of a journal that well-known. And okay, you don't want the faff of eBaying it, but I used to work for the sort of vampire bookseller who would basically pay you a few dollars to let him take the stuff away then try and make a mint on it. There must be some local to you too. Oh well.(Besides, don't you ever have days when you set yourself a mission not to switch on the computer?)

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