Looking ahead

In thinking about the year ahead, I’m trying to think carefully about how I allocate my time. It’s so easy to let teaching overwhelm me: it’s obvious that the students need this and that, and I see them at least once a week, they’re there, they have expectations. Scholars and editors are not on my doorstep, begging me for contributions; my colleagues don’t ask how research is going; research doesn’t create the same overwhelming pressures that teaching does. But let’s do the numbers, thinking not about what I (or my colleagues) really do, but about what we get paid for: I’m on contract from August 15 to May 15, or for 39 weeks. In that time, we get at least five federal holidays; let’s just call it five, for easy computation: 38 weeks. Assuming 40-hour weeks (which is after all the standard American work-week, though salaried employees don’t get overtime and are supposed to just get the job done however long it takes), that comes out to 38 x 40 = 1520 hours.

I’m evaluated at 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% service: in other words, despite the beliefs of some students, state legislators, and others, research is a hefty chunk of my job. I’m supposed to put in 608 hours on it over those 39 weeks I’m on contract, and 608 hours on teaching. (And 304 on service.) At five courses per year, that’s 121.6 hours per class, including face time, prep time, grading, and whatever else goes into a class. Classes meet 2.5 hours per week, over a 15-week semester, plus a two-hour final exam time: 39.5 hours of face time in the semester. That leaves me 82.1 hours to prep and grade for each course; allowing 10 hours of pre-semester planning (which seems like not enough, but never mind that for the moment), that yields less than five hours per week per class to grade, prepare, and hold office hours.

And let’s not forget serving on M.A. exam committees and Ph.D. candidacy exams, which also count as teaching. I don’t do those every year, but some years I have more than one such committee. I pick some of the texts, devise questions, consult with the other committee members, read the exams, meet with students who failed. Ten hours total? It’s not a huge amount, but again, it’s time not spent on the courses I’m actually teaching that term.

Grading alone usually takes a lot more time than five hours a week (on average). This is why most of us work at our research in the breaks between semesters, and why many of us let teaching fill our lives during the term. But I’m staring at these numbers, thinking that I should work out assignments that can be graded in the time I theoretically have available for grading, and spend 19.2 hours a week, over the next 19 weeks, on research, to reach my spring-term (2-course semester) quota of 364.8 hours.

I won’t be able to do it. For one thing, time goes on a lot of other things that are work, but don’t contribute to “production” in any of the three categories: reading and answering e-mail may have to do with any of the three, but answering a student’s e-mail message decreases the time available for grading, as does walking a handout down to the office to be copied; sending a query about the availability of a manuscript contributes to future research, but it doesn’t increase the word count on a conference paper; responding to a colleague’s query may make the next meeting go more smoothly, but it doesn’t make the meeting any shorter.

Research will get made up in the summer, as it always does. Still: I’m keeping an eye on these numbers as I plan my classes and my work schedule.

The Year in Review (part the second)

So how has it been, really? Well, 2009 was an interesting year, with a lot of travel, some new experiences, a lot of time in the spring to think about research questions, a fall term that had no disasters; but the whole year was colored by my mother’s death just before Christmas 2008. Various people said things about that event that were helpful in coping with it: It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event, so don’t be too hard on yourself; the death of a mother is a wound to the soul; we’re lucky when we understand what’s going on while it’s happening and manage to show up for it; grief is ego. The last remark was quoting the speaker’s meditation teacher, and everyone else in the room looked shocked, but it shifted and lightened the load I’d been carrying.

My chosen theme for the year was (re)creation, which may have been overly ambitious: it felt like what I was doing was hanging on or convalescing, not creating. And yet there were new or renewed experiences, many of them recreational, and a lot of reflection, all of which may yet bring about further changes, creativity and productivity.

I visited places I had not been before, or had not been in some years: mainland Mexico, New Haven, the Huntington Library, Cambridge (both), Exeter, New York City, Washington DC. I went on a cruise, I hiked in Mexico, I attended a Broadway musical and the New York City Ballet, I saw Leonard Cohen in concert twice. I reconnected with some old friends, one from college and three from graduate school; but another old friend seems to be slipping away. Life has its seasons.

During the spring term, I was on sabbatical, and while “real writing” (finishing an essay for a book collection; a couple of conference papers) felt like very hard, slow work, as I re-read my personal and research journals I see that I wrote a lot about ideas, things I was reading, plans for re-working the project that went bad, ways of tackling that new project: though this reflection hardly deserves the status of “rough draft,” it is useful material that I can mine as I move forward with this work, and I am pleased to re-discover it now.

In August, I went back to the classroom (3 classes, 79 students), trying out a lot of new ideas and revisions. Some worked, some didn’t. This integration of bibliographical research and literary study worked well for most (not all) of my grad students. Teaching close reading to undergraduates is still heavy going; giving out the pre-marked passages for analysis did not work very well, in the end. It may have helped some students, but others found it far too constraining; some simply couldn’t see connections in the groups of words I selected (they might also have had trouble coming up with their own groups, of course). Teaching paleography in literature classes went better with the graduate students than with the undergraduates, I suspect largely because of the difference in class sizes. I was dismayed to be reminded of my undergraduates’ limited vocabulary in present-day English: how can I teach them Middle English when they don’t recognize modern words like bough, brood, clad, and other words that will not be glossed because they are not archaic? I was also dismayed by a graduate student who assured me that “however” is a conjunction and that “of you and I” is correct because “you and I” is a compound, although I felt slightly relieved when the student accepted my explanation that prepositions govern the entire phrase that follows.

The lived themes of the year, as noted in my personal journal, turned out to be place and friendship. I have a vexed relationship to my current place, and often wish to be elsewhere; I enjoy travel and exploration of new places; I feel very much at home in libraries, wherever they are. I had excellent visits with a lot of friends, experienced a disappointing visit from a childhood friend, and saw a number of ways I have failed in friendship towards someone I esteem. I picked up bad habits from my mother, who was a difficult and demanding person; it’s hard to avoid behaving in ways one deplores when those ways are so constantly on display. But that part of my life is over; I am now free of both her bad example and the irritation and anxiety she used to cause me. I’ll hope that this means better things for all of my relationships.

The Year in Review (part the first)

I’ve cheated a bit on the first-sentence-of-the-month meme; in some cases, I’ve extracted a sentence that sums up the essence of the post, or altered punctuation. This is, however, my year according to the first post of the month. I’m planning a more thoughtful review of the year, as well, and a wish list for 2010.

January: Following Profgrrrrl, I’m picking a theme for this year rather than making resolutions: (Re)creation.

February: “Does that make us Satanists, if Basement Cat lives upstairs in our house?”

March: To show compassion is to take the high ground.

April: I used to be pleased at how much I’d changed since high school.

May: I spent yesterday evening in the company of Leonard Cohen and a couple thousand other fans.

June: So I’m supposed to be going to England in about a month, or maybe less, yet I still have not booked a flight.

July: I’m in my fourth library in a week. If this is Monday, it must be Cambridge.

August: So I recently read The Mysterious Benedict Society, which was good fun, and I’d recommend it if you like kid lit.

September: Like most of you, I’m suddenly plunged deep into the whirlpool of the semester (79 students and a whackload of committee work), so I don’t have much in the way of personal musings or cute cat stories (hard to have cute cat stories when you’re not home to observe the beasts).

October: Bloody Blackboard.

November: Well, yes, I do have ideas for more interesting posts, but no time to write them.

December: One evening, as I rambled / Among the trees and vines, /I overheard a young woman / Converse with Bradwardine.

Getting lighter

Whew: made it to the Solstice and out the other side. Now I can look forward to the days getting lighter instead of darker, for six whole months. And the anniversary of my mother’s death has passed, which also helps. In the past couple of days, I’ve even had a few faint intimations of Christmas spirit, enough to do some shopping and some baking, though I’m out of practice at baking. The cookies came out fine, but the cake was heavy as lead, and while getting out the cake-pan I broke a Villeroy and Bosch casserole.

There’s not a lot to report around here. The semester’s safely wrapped up, winter is truly here, and I’ve been spending a lot of time reading the Little Colonel books. Basement Cat is behaving unusually well. Really, this should have been an RBOC post, and I’m too lazy even to turn it into bullets.

Do you know where your library cards are?

Yesterday I met with my writing buddy to work on our projects-that-won’t-die. She noticed a call slip from the Cambridge University Library tucked into my research journal, and confessed that she, too, keeps such things to remind herself that she was there. We also like to use old Métro tickets as bookmarks, and are delighted by stray coins and other detritus of travel that turn up deep in pockets.

I also hang onto library cards, more deliberately. Obviously my local cards (LRU card, public library card) belong in my wallet. Once I return home, “foreign” cards live (are supposed to live) with my passport. I checked the stash this morning: CUL, Bodleian, British Library, Newberry, Huntington, Library of Congress, along with cards for photocopiers at Cornell and the University of Chicago. But where are my cards from the Folger and the National Library of Scotland? Being a little OCD (especially when the alternative is grading final exams), I went on a hunt. In an old purse (how do I get so many old purses? I don’t think of myself as a woman with a lot of handbags), I found a stash of stuff, including my alumni association card (more or less a library card, for my purposes) and an oil-change card (one free for every so many changes) whose whereabouts I have wondered about for a couple of years. So that was useful. The cards I was looking for, however, remain missing.

Since all one’s information is now in computer systems, I’m sure it doesn’t really matter. And even if it did, my credentials have not changed. I can get a new card whenever I re-visit the issuing library, though sometimes having the old one does speed things up a bit.

But I would like to know where my missing objects are, and what company they may be keeping. While I was thinking about stuff-gone-walkabout, I turned up a measuring cup buried in a bag of kibble of a type no longer in use around here. Sir John said, “I bet you didn’t sift through that bag well enough to be sure your library cards aren’t in it.”

Looking a lot like Christmas

If I had my druthers, I would spend the entire month of December in Morocco. Or Malaysia. Somewhere warm where they don’t celebrate Christmas.

I’ve never been a big fan of the winter holidays. OK, maybe as a really little kid. But once I was into my teens, Christmas tended to be dull: I’m the youngest by a lot, so my brothers and cousins were all gone, and I got to spend the day in sedate pursuits, being polite to grandparents and aunt and uncle (all much stuffier than my own family). It was a “family day,” so seeing friends was right out. When I was in grad school, I didn’t go “home” for Christmas. One year I went to a boyfriend’s family. Other years I spent on my own, or with one or two other people who had nowhere to go. On one really fun year, several of us had a “Godfather” marathon, renting all three movies and spending the day alternating watching them and eating. Early job years were more of the same, until I met Sir John. He comes from a big family, so now I can be overwhelmed by all the people and noise on holidays.

Part of the problem is just that it’s winter. I don’t like winter. It’s dark and it’s cold. All the fairy lights, greenery and red bows are just a way of whistling in the dark, as far as I’m concerned, creating color and glitter in a world gone dim and chilly. I don’t like the commercialism of Christmas in this country, don’t like shopping at the best of times, and definitely not in the crowds that turn out in December. And then, after last year, on top of seasonal affective disorder, introversion, and general crankiness, I have genuinely melancholy associations with the holiday.

Sadly, Morocco—or even the Caribbean—is right out; our menagerie has complicated needs. So I’m trying to come up with some stay-at-home ideas for creating better associations with the holidays, this year. I haven’t got much; my usual coping devices focus on ignoring as much of the hoo-ha as possible and concentrating on work, or engaging in mildly pleasant activities like wallowing in a hot tub with a fluffy novel. I’d like to make this the year of [something Special and Exciting], but I may default to behaving like an iguana, hunkered down between my full-spectrum lamp and a space heater.

Does anybody have suggestions of [something Special and Exciting]? Do you actually enjoy Christmas? Or are there some other iguanas out there?


Thirty-five more papers to grade. Some symptoms have eased up, but my voice is totally gone, and periodically I cough so hard I think my eyes will pop out. I’m feeling very nostalgic for the cold a year ago that I was able to nurse with Six Feet Under episodes.

On to the papers. You may wish to start a pool on how long it takes for me to move from the hot-lemonade mix to straight whisky.

Shameless chick lit bleg

Between the virus and the treatment (not to mention end-of-term-itis), my brain is not what it might be. I feel like reading trash. Recommendations welcome (keeping in mind that I have a strong preference for British chick lit and rarely like the American version).

In particular, I have vague memories of a book whose title and author completely escape me, but if it rings any bells for anyone (Laura? have you cleaned it out of your library recently?), do let me know. It came out sometime in the last 10 years; modern British setting; features a heroine possibly named Annie and a Scottish hero possibly named Alastair. He has a tumbledown castle and needs to marry money, pronto, and sweeps Annie off her feet in the belief that she has it. She doesn’t. She actually prefers a friend of his, or maybe his brother. In the end, of course she gets together with the friend, or brother. There’s a very romantic dinner early on; and a ball somewhat later; and a very cold trip to Scotland.

I can’t believe I’m posting this. Blame it on the hot lemonade with whisky. And why don’t I drink that when I’m not sick? Mmm. Maybe by the time you get around to naming that book I will feel better and be back to grading (yes, there’s more) and reading about Gower and Henry IV, which is what I ought to be doing. I’m a sherioush shcholar, really. Mmm, lemmmonade. Sherious, I tell you.

If you’re a colleague reading this, you’re hallucinating. Really. Go back to your grading and when you come back I’ll have poofed this.


One evening, as I rambled
Among the trees and vines,
I overheard a young woman
Converse with Bradwardine.

Her hair was black, her lips were red
As sacramental wine;
And he smiled to gaze upon her,
That wise clerk, Bradwardine.

She said, “Kind sir, be civil;
I know not canon law.
But in the common custom,
I fear you go too far.”

“Oh no,” he said, “Not far at all!
I’ll prove it to you so:
A college of philosophers
Will swear I’m nice to know.

“I’m searching for a Heloise
To match my Abelard.
I’ll give you private lessons;
You’ll find they’re not too hard.

“And if by chance you look for me,
Perhaps you’ll not me find,
For I’ll be in the chapter house:
Inquire for Bradwardine.”

And so at night, she followed him,
As monks sang their Compline.
There was the mirth and solace
For that sly, bold Bradwardine.