Serendipity

I should, of course, be grading. And you might quite reasonably expect me to be panicking over everything that has to be done all too soon: grading (piles of longish papers from undergrads; easier assignments from grads); inventing final exams (and then grading them, week after next); finishing that damned R&R that I have not been working on in sensible brief stints. Some sane portion of my brain is, in fact, in a state over all that.

However, as of this morning I know something about provenance of a medieval manuscript that nobody else knows, and the larger portion of my brain is callooh-ing and callay-ing about this lovely discovery. (Apparently I can’t be left alone for ten minutes with a book containing reproductions of late-medieval marginalia without coming up with another research project, even though I can’t seem to finish the last one.) The timing is perfect, because a conference abstract deadline is fast approaching, for a conference I love but thought I’d have to miss or attend purely as audience this time, because not only am I supposed to be finishing things, but I really didn’t have anything up my sleeve for it.

But now I have something really cool (at least I think so) to work up and present. I am obnoxiously pleased with myself and my new shiny project. If I were capable of doing without sleep for the next two weeks, everything would be fine.

Do you think I could get the cats to handle the grading?

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Basement Cat meets Basement Cat

While we are definitely the Crazy Cat People on our block, several of our near neighbors are also servants to cats, and one of the closest has two: a big black cat and his clearly part-Siamese sister. Their person allows them to go out while she is doing yard work.

Sir John and I do not approve of letting cats go out, but having mentioned the reasons for this a time or two, we now shut up and pet Neighbor Catboy and Neighbor Catgirl when they’re out.

Both of them are very nice, sweet, friendly cats, especially Neighbor Catboy. He likes everybody. Both of them like to jump up on the ledge outside our living room window.

Most of our cats say, “Oh, hey, another cat. We’re used to . . . [yawn] . . . cats. [Snore.]”

But our Basement Cat is another matter. On Monday, Neighbor Catgirl got on the outside ledge while Basement Cat was on the inside sill. I was at school, but Sir John said he thought Basement Cat was having a hairball: low yowls and an odd chittering noise, like an insect.

Tuesday, while I was home, it happened again.

Wednesday, Neighbor Catboy, aka Neighbor Basement Cat, jumped up on the ledge. Our BC screamed. Poofed. Howled his indignation and intent to terminate with extreme prejudice.

There is ONLY ONE Basement Cat in the world, and we shall have no other basement cats before him.

Innumeracy

Is there a penalty for failing to turn in the final paper?

Well, that paper is worth 20 points, or 20% of your grade, so yes, yes there is.

Or did you mean would I impose a further penalty? I suppose that might make sense, but no, I will not take off 25 points for not turning in a 20-point paper. What you see is what you get.

Actually, I might be willing to give you 3 free points for not making me grade the paper, but I guess I won’t say that.

I am convinced that a lot of students think (despite all evidence to the contrary) that they will get graded just on what they turn in. Get C’s on the first three pieces of work (worth, in my calculation, 30% of the semester’s grade)? OK, that’s a C sewn up, so stop turning in work. And then howl in agony when it turns out that you’re failing the course for lack of the other 70%.

Grumble grumble grumble.

What I’m not doing

Not long ago, I was planning to apply for a grant that would support work on a manuscript from a period later than the Middle Ages. Motivations: genuine interest in the topic; a well-founded belief that the manuscript is under-studied and that I would have things to say about it that its other admirers would not; enjoyment of time spent in rare-books rooms in general and of that one in particular; the prestige of getting grants (because, false modesty aside, I think I could write a proposal that would get funded); and advice, long ago, from one of my dissertation committee members about getting a publication out of every topic you spend a lot of time on.

It’s that last one that got me thinking. This advice was not from the cold dead magister; but it has, I think, contributed to a form of perfectionism, the urge to recover sunk costs. I have already spent time with this manuscript. I have done some research into its writer and his family. I have “read around” in the literature and social history of the period. This does sound as if I have invested in the project; it would make sense to finish what I started.

That investment, however, was made at a time when my judgment was impaired; and even then I had doubts about whether this work really required me to do it. Now, having had that conversation about perfectionism, and having worked out how many hours I’m supposed to spend on research and teaching, I’ve reconsidered.

My committee member, after all, could probably better afford to spend time marking his territory than I can. He teaches three courses a year. Applying my own arithmetic here (length of semester, 40-hour-week, etc., as in the last-linked post), that gives him a little more than 145 hours per year more than I have to work on research. There are other factors to consider, as well. His classes are smaller than mine, so he can spend less time on grading. On the other hand, he certainly has more graduate students than I have, and some of that time that he doesn’t use on classes undoubtedly goes to reading drafts of chapters and advising Ph.D. candidates. I can affirm that he reads very attentively, gives lots of comments, and is happy to talk over ideas. Nonetheless, I think it’s very likely that he has more time than I to spend on learning the background in a new area.

In Jonathan Mayhew‘s terms, he can afford to broaden his scholarly base.

I’m not so sure that I can. I have a scholarly base that serves me well, in the fields in which I teach and publish. I have work I want to do that relies firmly on that base. I can do that work more easily, and probably better, than I can do the early-modern manuscript project. Fascinating though I find its author, he takes me away from the work that I am convinced is my “proper job.”

So, with some regrets, I’m not applying to go back to that library. Maybe someday; maybe after I write a book and finish a few more articles, if I’m at loose ends, if there’s nothing else I long to do that uses my current scholarly base, then, perhaps, with or without a grant, I would go back. For now, I’m concentrating on finishing that R&R, getting two more articles finished and submitted, and then getting on with the book.

The decision makes me a little nervous. What if I’m passing up something wonderful, something that could be prize-winning or career-changing? Was that manuscript an opportunity that fell in my lap, to which I said “no,” instead of greeting it with proper enthusiasm?

But I’m sure enough that this is a good decision. I’m not old yet; but I’m not young, either. If I want to produce a truly coherent body of work (whether or not it meets the two-monograph standard), I need to get on with it. I need to stop running after the new, shiny objects, and finish the old projects with which I feel a little bored because I’ve answered (to my own satisfaction, though not in a form available to others) the question that drew me to them. I need to recognize that I work at LRU with a five-course load and a lot of committee work, not an Ivy with three (though I’m grateful for five and not six or seven or eight) and the ability to remain unaware of how STEM grants can help fund the humanities. It’s time to get real.

Sometimes you just have to let the sunk costs stay sunk.

Of letters I need but five . . .

(or rather four, one repeated), to write me down a cynic.

I thought the original video about grad school in the humanities was too true to be really funny.

And the kinder, gentler version is boring. Not funny. Possibly useful for aspiring students, or for profs who would rather say “go watch this video” instead of having either conversation.

I’m not nice enough to keep my mouth shut altogether, but I can at least not snark in other people’s comments. But, people . . . I’m grading over here. If I’m going to use my rather slow internet connection to load videos, I want them to be funny.

Chaucer was a zombie

I can’t quote directly . . . but a student paper’s phrasing implies that a couple of hundred years after Chaucer’s (presumed) death, he was going to school in chemistry and theology.

I devoutly hope this is a problem with expressing ideas clearly, rather than misunderstanding a scholarly article, or finding a source that really does claim Chaucer as a zombie, or a vampire. Then again, given the historical sensitivity of some of my students, misunderstanding seems quite possible.

Sir John asks when someone is going to write the Un-Morte D’Arthur. Give us credit if you take up the challenge.

Not my department!

I’m willing to question (in fact, do question regularly) whether it is part of my job to re-teach composition in upper-division literature courses, or just indicate that yes, I do expect you to know how to quote, cite, and use commas and semi-colons appropriately, and if you don’t do these things I will (a) refer you to a handbook and (b) dock your grade.

The student essay I just read, however, suggests that the writer’s literacy level is way below college level, a problem that has been partially obscured through two-thirds of the semester by our focus on primary texts, i.e., those written in Middle English. But when a person doesn’t understand an essay published in this century, written for a student audience, there’s a problem that is way, way beyond my ability to solve. There may be an undiagnosed learning disability, or the student may simply have been passed through courses that Stu should by rights have failed.

I’m sorry this happened. I have no idea how Stu got to be an English major with this level of difficulty in reading and writing. But I’m not a literacy specialist. I teach Middle English literature and language, not middle school language arts. I’m signing off on this one. Even if Stu does come to office hours (a request I made weeks ago, which has been been ignored), I’ll punt, and recommend various other campus agencies that would be more use.

So, should I teach semi-colons, or just take points off for using them wrong?

Fora words of wisdom

“It’s no use caring about their grades more than they do.”

Remember.

Apply.

Do not stop to wonder why they are repeating errors from their earlier papers when not only did I mark the errors then, I allot class time for students to read through their comments, ask questions about them, and make a list of things they are going to try to do better on their next paper.

It may be no use, but I’m pretty sure I do care about their grades more than they do.

On a more cheerful note, I’ve also been reading the auto ethnographer’s blog, and though I am green with envy at the pictures of the sabbatical house and town, it also makes me happy to fantasize a similar situation for myself someday.

Either I have miscounted these papers, or an awful lot of people turned them in online but not in hard copy, or didn’t turn them in at all. I don’t think I’m going to finish today, but there is hope of being done by Wednesday’s classes: another cheerful thought.

Five-minutes-later update: D’oh! I found the rest of the papers. Gah. Clearly grading, or something, is affecting my brain.