How’s that working for you?

The 9-1 office hours worked very well the first week (except for Friday, with the stiff neck and little sleep). Second week had mixed results, though this is partly because one day I had to drive out to LRU and another day I went to a different local library; these trips interfered with my schedule, though I probably put in at least 4 hours’ worth of work both days. A third day had a celebratory breakfast meeting that was sorta kinda work-related.

This week I am off to a good start (I wasn’t even late to my desk this morning). I know it’s supposed to be a holiday, but not only was I not invited to any parties, it’s raining here. And, really, most of the time I don’t even enjoy parties all that much. But I am feeling very satisfied with the time I’ve put in on getting re-acquainted with a stalled writing project, and planning where it should go from here, and with time reading 40 pages in a very fat book I got from ILL a year ago . . . and started reading a few months ago . . . . I’m really good at biting off more than I can chew, which is why it’s important for me to just put the time in as well as to try to make more detailed plans about how much I’d like to get done.

I’ve also acquired packs of index cards in various solid and striped colors (striped, woo-hoo! I’d never seen those before). They’re not for note-taking, but for planning and keeping track of work. Goals for the month go on a colored card. Goals for the week go on a color-coordinated striped card. Goals and time-keeping for the day go on a white card. (The white cards, though, are heavier and take up more space in the little card box I also acquired; I may switch around to using striped cards for the days and white, or maybe different colored solids, for the weeks.) I used this system with some success before I got tenure, and sometime around that time switched to a PDA. Only I have found that, while I love the alarm function on the PDA (so I don’t miss meetings, and am reminded to get up and do things like pay bills when I planned to do so), it just doesn’t suit the way I think about time.

My problems with time management stem in large part from finding time too abstract and unreal a concept. I have a good grasp of “now.” “Now” is when I would rather eat chocolate or work in the garden or read blogs than grade papers. Everything else is “later,” and who knows whether “later” will even happen? The world could come to an end! I could get run over crossing the street! The students might all decide not to come to class! It takes a huge effort of faith and will to believe that “later” will indeed come about, and to insist to myself that in the later “now” I will regret not grading (or whatever) in this earlier “now.”

(Um, yeah, basically I’m a cat, except my idea of good activities for “now” doesn’t involve quite so much sleeping.)

So I really need a system of lists and time-tracking that makes the deadlines, the stuff to do, and the time available to do it in as concrete and real as possible. (Also fun: colored index cards and colored pens are a bribe for trying to think and plan realistically.) Really BIG desk calendars help. Whole-year wall calendars help (pity I don’t have a place to put one). An index card per day helps. Those ruled lines on the cards help: if I run out of lines, that’s probably a sign that there are too many items on the list for a single day or week. Electronic systems just foster my sense that time is abstract and expandable. One solid real card per day, and when you’re out of space you’re out of time: that’s easy to grasp.

Actually, I’m tempted to blame my struggles with time on a childhood misunderstanding. You know the blank squares on calendar pages when the month doesn’t begin on Sunday and end on Saturday (on American calendars)? I asked my mother about those when I was about 4, and she said they were “extra days.” I thought she meant unnumerated days, a little like Leap Day, uncounted time between the end of one official month and the beginning of another. She quickly explained, but too late . . . the concept, the hope of that extra time had lodged in my developing brain. Not done by the 30th? Never mind, there are 3 grace days before the first. Instead, all too often it seems like I’m living multiple days at once, as in this month’s doubling up of the 24th and 31st on the calendar.

Basement Cat gets high

Basement Cat likes to climb things: the cat tree, the bookcases.

It’s not that he wants to be Ceiling Cat, unfortunately.

Recently he figured out how to get to the top of the refrigerator, where we keep used to keep the kibble.

The kibble has moved to the linen closet.

Rather inconvenient for us.

Very inconvenient for Basement Cat.

Summer plans and a couple of whines

So, like Heu Mihi, I’ve made summer plans. Only I’m trying to ramp up gradually. The most important element is keeping office hours: 9-1, every day. The afternoons are then free for the gym, tending to household chores and projects (of which there are any number), fun reading, gardening, or (if I’m on a roll) more work. This week, for instance, I’ve had a couple of afternoon dates with my writing buddy: one was extra, and one was partially extra because I got a slow start yesterday. I’ve been keeping track of what I get done, in how much time, so that instead of making ambitious plans at the outset, I can make realistic plans a week or two into this regimen.

The first four days went really well. But I woke in the middle of the night with a painfully stiff neck and was awake for a long time; after icing the sore spots and taking lots of ibuprofen, I finally got back to sleep, and woke right about 9:00, when the phone rang, followed immediately by a chorus of cat calls (because cat breakfast is my job).

(I was glad to wake up, actually. I was dreaming that I was conducting a review session for a math class, when I had no idea what was supposed to be on the exam and had forgotten to make up a review sheet. I had to ask the students to tell me what they wanted help with. It was a very low-level class, so my problem was purely lack of preparation, not lack of knowledge. I had a vague notion that I should explain quadratic equations, but all their questions involved very basic things like figuring out rates of speed. And my dancer friend was in the class and gave me a really hard time when I used a whiteboard marker on a chalkboard.)

So I’m still really groggy and slow, and not getting anything done though I am dutifully sitting at my desk. I think I may have to go to something really low-level, like coordinating the various folders on my laptop and those on my flash drive (I try to be good about backing up, but sometimes I need to go through and copy from one to the other). Or I could, figuratively, call in sick and take the day off.

I am also distracted by news from the cycling world. Four years ago, though I certainly had doubts, I was prepared to believe that mix-ups at the testing lab (accidental or deliberate) could have led to Floyd Landis’s test results. Now the man has proven he’s a liar. And that just makes me mad.

Actually, I think drugs and doping should be allowed, as long as everybody declares exactly what they’re doing. Then it could be part of the commentary: Team X is relying on EPO, Team Y prefers blood doping, Team Z has some very interesting results from gene therapies.

Just, you know, don’t lie about it.

Other people’s dreams are boring

I dreamed that I was visiting Notorious, Ph.D. (whom IRL I do not know that well) at her house, a small but charming bungalow in a pleasant neighborhood. She had been offered another job and needed to sell this house ASAP, and was worried about how long it would take in the present market. I asked what she wanted to get for it, and she named a ridiculously low price (ridiculous even for here, and completely absurd for the West Coast). I said that at that price, I would buy it, and she wouldn’t have to go through the hassle of showing it.

So she showed me around the house. There were 4 rooms downstairs; a full basement, and outside, the ground had been excavated so that basement windows looked out into deep light wells, rather as in the B&B where I stayed once in Edinburgh; and an attic bedroom. The main floor was sparsely furnished, tidy and functional; the bedroom my hostess used was there. The attic room was given over to antique linens and dolls, as well as (I gradually realized) four very beautiful long-haired cats, one Himalayan, one tortoiseshell, and two whose coats I couldn’t make out in the dim light.

Sir John liked the house, too. We couldn’t decide if we would rent it out during the school year and just visit in the summer, or if we would find a caretaker but leave it empty so that we could visit whenever we liked.

I have had what I call “house dreams” for many years. The houses are almost always someone else’s, which I am exploring. The owners are almost never there. I can remember only two other dreams in which the house belonged to a person I know IRL (as opposed to feeling that I know in the dream). The house is never the same twice, but I always know a “house dream” from any other sort of dream.

How the other 1% lives

Actually, I don’t know what percentage of faculty teach at Ivies or near-Ivies. But I was struck by a couple of conversations, at the same dinner at Kalamazoo, that revealed certain . . . shall we say, distinctions between gentlemen and gentlemen’s daughters.

A: “Oh, I don’t believe in spending time on campus. All my books are at home. I hold office hours in the library cafe, and I teach my graduate classes in my home . . . .”

B: “How does the medical school getting grants help the humanities departments?”
B: “I never heard of that.”

#1: For this to work, you have to live close to campus, in a domicile large enough to hold class (or you’re in a department that will let grad classes run with half a dozen students, and you never actually have to find seats for 15), and you have no qualms about letting students know where you live and how you live. None of this is true of me.

#2: B is considerably older than I am, and has always worked at an Ivy. They must lead very sheltered lives there (lack of committee work outside of the department?). Or else the humanities are actually well-enough funded that there is no cheese-paring from other people’s grants.


There’s something wrong when you arrive at Kalamazoo with a suitcase full of books (unless you’re a book exhibitor).

But now I have finished writing my paper (except for cutting it down a bit . . . first it was supposed to be 15 minutes, and then it became 20, so I got over-enthusiastic about putting in stuff that certainly wouldn’t have fit in 15, and so now it’s 25), after two days of avoiding most of the social aspects of the Zoo in favor of hiding out with my paper and said suitcase.

The blogger meet-up this morning was good, though: I talked with ADM, the Rebelletriste, xoom, T.E., JJ, Steve Muhlberger, Notorious. I have to wonder, though, if I’m the only morning-person medievalist here. (A friend suggested that the morning people just don’t come to Kalamazoo.) The sessions I’ve made it to have been good, as well. And tomorrow Sir John will arrive. We keep talking about him bringing Basement Cat, too, to give the other cats a rest, but in sober fact, B.C. will likely stay home.

I like to imagine, though, what would happen if we turned Basement Cat loose at the dance. If you see a black cat swinging from the disco ball, call me. And if he offers you white powder, don’t, please don’t snort it . . . it’s probably dust from the kitty litter.

More about graduate students

I’ve had one graduate student who completed a dissertation under my direction. So, yeah, if you know who I am you can find out who my student is, I know: I have nothing but good things to say about my student, and I don’t think I’m going to say anything that violates Stu’s privacy, and this has general implications.

My student will be in the UK this summer, and wants to visit some manuscripts. I am totally in favor of this, of course. Love the lovely manuscripts! And I’m happy to write a letter of recommendation to assert that Stu Dent did indeed complete a dissertation under my direction, blah blah knows how to behave in libraries blah blah please extend all courtesy to Stu etc etc. Stu has questions, of course, about how all this works. So I have gone with Stu to a local Rare Books Room (that is, not LRU’s) to demonstrate how this sometimes works. I also try to provide guidance like “send an e-mail that says when you will be there and ask if you can have access to what you want to see, using shelfmarks.”

“Ask” is a key word, and it’s polite to use the library’s method of referring to their holdings, rather than the nickname scholars may use. I have known snowflake-students for whom I might have found it expedient to dictate the e-mail, for fear of an overly-entitled demand to see restricted material, but this Stu is not one of them. (Come to think about it, if someone acted that entitled, I might not write in support. I’ll have to think about that.)

But at a certain point, I say “Here’s the URL for the website; poke around and find the address for the reading room you need, and the information about applying for cards.” Or even, “I haven’t been there myself, so do a web search for the library and see if you can find the information you need.”

I think this is appropriate. Stu is now Dr. Stu, after all, and is perfectly capable of doing web searches. It’s not that Stu expects me to do Stu’s work; it’s more that Stu is awed, excited, and nervous at the prospect of seeing Actual.Real.Six Hundred Year Old.Manuscripts!! (as one is), and wants to be sure nothing happens to ruin that prospect. So I want to be helpful and calming, but there is a limit to what I can or should do for Stu. Dr. Stu is going to have to go through the same process the rest of us go through.

I guess what worries me, a little, is that Stu thinks I’m someone special and important because I have been in these libraries and seen these materials, and I’m not. I mean, obviously I have a Ph.D. and certain training, but it’s not as if my name means anything at all to Bruce Barker-Benfield. I have no “pull.” I’m just one more obscure American scholar who has gone through the interviews with the gatekeepers to achieve a reader’s card at various Significant Libraries.

In other words, to borrow from dear Miss Austen, I am a gentleman and Stu is a gentleman’s daughter, and thus far we are equal. It’s not as if my professors went with me anywhere but our own Ivy Library; they wrote letters of recommendation, but I don’t recall any other specific advice about how to approach libraries and librarians.

On the other hand, their names and that of my alma mater opened more doors than my name and LRU’s can do, and so, given that I do not personally have any particular clout, perhaps I do owe my students more individual help than my professors offered me.



I’ve been buried in grading and Kalamazoo paper for days, with occasional forays into the interwebs for consolation. I completely understand, after the recent kerfuffle, why the Bittersweet Girl would go to a password-protected blog. But if there was a moment to request the password, I missed it. BG, is it too late? Send me an e-mail? Bon voyage!

Grading angst, 2

Reasons I’m having trouble getting through these papers:

Bad papers make me wonder if I’m a bad teacher.

When people I like write bad papers, I feel even worse.

I shouldn’t personalize this. It’s not about me. It’s about spring fever, senioritis, jobs, children, other papers due, time crunches, illness, stress, lack of sleep, and remembering that it’s better to turn in something than nothing. It’s about recently-acquired skills deserting stressed writers.

Right? Tell me it’s not about me.