One down, 14 to go

I am so wiped out. I know, it’s not digging ditches or removing trash, but teaching produces its own particular kind of exhaustion. Especially during the first week or two, when I’ve been enjoying a fairly solitary life most of the time since mid-May. So! many! people! and they all seem to want something.

They’re good people. I think I’ll have good classes. It’s just that there are so many of them, and I am the complete opposite of gregarious. The students seem good-natured, with no obvious problem children among them; at the second class meeting, people had either the books or photocopies, an excellent sign of preparedness and commitment. It’s true I can tell who knows how to study a language, and who does not. I will have to give more recommendations on how to learn (internalize, commit to memory) Middle English pronouns and verb endings, because I think some people just look at the tables and move on. But the self-corrected practice quizzes should make clear to them (I hope) that they’ll have to do more work.

I think the students are having fun, which is good, because I’ve worked hard at figuring out how to teach ME as if it were a living language (never having taught a foreign language, let alone had pedagogical training in how to do so), and written a lot of dialogues and so on from scratch. So I hope this works. I think some of the fatigue comes from doing a New Thing, and some is from the intense interaction that language teaching seems to require. I am feeling a lot of sympathy for (and considerable awe of) Z.

And some of it is scheduling. Like Dr. Crazy, I have a night class (I nearly always have a night class) and then teach again the next day. I’m not ‘on’ as early as she is, but I don’t think she has my commute, either. And in any case, if you are not a night person, night classes are their own special brand of hell, for you have to get jazzed up enough to be an energetic teacher at a time when you want to be winding down, and then you stay jazzed up because of the teaching buzz long after you would like to be in bed. And this goes on week after week, unlike the occasional social event that seems worth staying up for. I read the advice at Dr. Crazy’s place hopefully, but I have never found that any amount of rituals (or drinks) help. It’s like the common cold, in that it lasts seven days if you treat it and a week if you don’t. The only thing that helps is allowing the requisite amount of time to pass. The rituals (or drinking) are just something to do so you feel like you’re doing something while the time passes.

It’ll get better. I’ll get used to being with people more. We’ll move on from intense language study into literary analysis. I’ll get to know the students so the interactions won’t be with complete strangers. I’ll reconsider my schedule and figure out what I can manage and what has to change. I’ll eat more chocolate.

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Planning

Although I keep trying to focus on a single project at a time, the Octopus Touch remains in full force. Or maybe it’s just that my ideas breed like rabbits, and then grow like weeds, so that (for instance) I start with a conference paper to revise into an article, and wind up with a book-in-progress and a fellowship application to base on the project, in addition to other projects that began as conference papers and need to develop further.

I know: I should just say no to conferences. But I keep having bright ideas that I want to do something with. My ideas and papers are, at least, on closely related topics, and contribute to a reputation as an expert in a particular area. Or will, when I get the blasted rabbits caught, spitted, cooked and served up. Ugh: no wonder I don’t like these writing metaphors. I can’t imagine eating rabbit, any more than I could eat cat. But really, what else do you do with rabbits? OK, comb them for fur and make Angora sweaters. My brain as sweater factory; fuzzy ideas; no wonder I have these problems. Maybe I should go back to the “growing like weeds” idea.

So anyway, given the list of things I have in hand, I’ve been trying to set weekly goals for both research and teaching, for the semester. I’ve got through the first three weeks, things like “get coherent chapter outline to send to recommenders” (it can be edited and polished later, but I need to give people time to sit with it) and “give one ‘practice quiz’ to be graded in class, then collected and checked for participation credit.” As I work later in the term, it will be things like “work on project X for 2 hours,” where I’ll have to determine later what that work should be, and “grade 20 papers.” I’m hoping this will keep me focused.

I talked with a friend yesterday about this, who couldn’t believe I was planning so closely—”I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants the whole time I’ve been here!” (not a short time, either). I did not say “How’s that working out for you?” though I admit the phrase crossed my mind.

Instead, I said, “So have I, and I’m not really happy with how that’s going. Also, I’m going to be teaching pretty much for 21 months straight unless I get that fellowship, which I don’t want to plan on, so I won’t have big chunks of time in which I can get caught up on things I put aside. I need to keep the momentum going even while I’m teaching.”

I’m not sayin’ . . .

If you work in a place that emphasizes openness, transparency, playing-by-the-rules, is it harder to get people to stand for election to personnel committees, chairships, and directors of this or that? It seems to me that unless you manage to hire people with a strong public-service ethic, or unless you can offer significant financial or other incentives, it might be more difficult to get people to volunteer for jobs that are known to be thankless. Committees are probably less onerous, and more likely to get people simply rotating through, but directorships where the director has responsibility without power . . . well, really, who’d want to be responsible yet powerless?

In a cutthroat department that plays favorites, then, there is an obvious reason to volunteer for committees and to try to become a director or chair: you can protect yourself and your friends, and take revenge on your enemies. I’m not saying I want to work in such a place, mind you. I’m just sayin’.

Updated to add: Dr. Cleveland discussed what’s-in-it-for-me here.

And we’re off . . .

Faculty meeting, scanning, picking up a graduate exam to read, making copies, returning books, pulling books for reserves, such is the day ahead of me. I have turned in one syllabus, just minutes ago, though I can see that the other is going to get done over the weekend, and I have written 340 words.

I wish I didn’t always revise my syllabi. Given the number of times I have taught Chaucer, you’d think I could just re-use one of the dozen or so old ones. But no, I always have to tinker. This year, we’re starting with intensive language work, so the first three weeks need a lot of revision (and extra handouts and exercises, as well). After that the class will look a little more like past versions, but I’m still swapping a couple of Tales around, and the books are different, and I’m sure I’ll think of some other things to mess with while I’m at it this weekend.

Of course I wish I’d done this long ago. I did start thinking about it long ago. But I wrote 15,000 words of what is going to be a monograph this summer. I haven’t exactly been . . . no, actually, I have been, precisely, sitting on my ass. It’s just that I was applying ass to chair in order to produce those words, not to produce an undergraduate syllabus.

A teaching thought

In my next-to-last post, I wrote “This is also making me think I have to do more to encourage my students with their writing. I try to do this, of course; but it’s so easy to point out problems, and harder to cheer them on, especially when cheering results in questions like ‘if I’m doing so well, why is this a C?’ How do you come up with encouraging comments that don’t imply you give A’s for effort?”

Maybe I should divide my classes into small groups that are supposed to be writing groups, and give them the rules that my RL group uses (first round is clarification questions, second round is saying something you liked about the piece, third round is answering the writer’s own questions), and get them to do the encouraging. Or let them form their own groups. Or just have them use the groups to set goals and comment on what helped them to meet their goals and where they had problems. This could be done online, via Blackboard say, so I could keep an eye on things; or I could have them meet in class for a few minutes every few weeks.

I do not have “peer review” in mind. Just encouraging the act of writing, without getting into the A-for-effort trap.

This just occurred to me a few hours ago, so I haven’t really thought through how it might work and what the pitfalls could be. Any thoughts from my Gentle Readers?

Mirabile dictu

So the August thrash has paid off, possibly literally! Because I was stiff from sitting at my desk for a long time, I got up for a physical task: pulling from my shelves library books that I am going to return (yep, decided that would be worthwhile). Among them is a book that went missing nine months ago. It is from another library. I have already paid a fine for it, because I hoped that if I did, the online check-out system would stop showing this book as overdue and with a fine owing (that did not work, though the check cleared months ago). So now, if I return the book, and start sending letters and making phone calls, maybe I can get the fine refunded. Honestly, I’m not 100% sure it’s worth the trouble, but I might be able to convince myself to do it if I get to spend the money (if I get it back) on either shoes or books.

I would still like to know what happened to the other book from the same library that went missing at the same time. I did not find it on my shelves. The found one has a spine title that is really the series title: no wonder I couldn’t find it when I looked for its individual title.

So the other good news is that now I have space on my shelves that I can use for piles that are presently on my desk. Not that the desk is cleared yet; one thing at a time. It’s August. I’m thrashing. I’m writing two blog posts in the space of a few hours instead of continuing to create a new spreadsheet for a conference paper for next spring, or working on syllabi, or going to the gym, or phoning my dentist.

The bad news is that I have piles of books on the floor, because before returning them I want to be certain that books I think I will need again when I return to the Old Current Project (jeebus: I hereby re-christen that thing the Macedonian Marginalia Project, MMP for short) or to the previous Putative Book project (MaryAnn Ginger! the Big Volume on a Manuscript, or BVM, how’s that?), anyway, I say, I want to be sure those books are noted in the appropriate notes, bibliography, or “dump file,” especially those that are somehow obscure, or came to me via ILL, so I can get them back easily. And no, I will not re-write that sentence. Also I want to be certain that I have sorted out the ILL books from the home library books, so I get receipts for the ILL ones. Would someone please check back with me in a week’s time, to see if I have in fact taken the minimal notes and returned the books? Just leave a comment. If you want to be sure to get my attention, leave a comment on a post more than 2 weeks old, and then I’ll have to moderate it.

What I learned

Notorious asked what we learned about writing, this summer. I missed this when I added my comment about progress, and I could use a topic for a post, so I’m just going to answer this here.

1. I learned how useful it is to think about interim lengths of time. Not a whole year, not even a whole semester. And not this week, or this month. Twelve weeks is an interesting amount of time. Maybe if you’re on the quarter system, it seems more natural. But except for two-three years long ago, I’ve spent my life on fifteen-weeks-plus-finals semesters. Twelve weeks out of the summer makes it clear there is some time off. Twelve weeks out of a semester leaves some time to deal with end-of-term grading.

I think I might actually like to think in ten-week increments. Maybe I’m just being contrary. But a few years ago, when visiting family, I met a woman who had a “focus group” that met regularly: it was about 10 women, who would meet to set goals that they would try to accomplish over 10 weeks. There were, I think, intermediate check-ins (I’m not sure if these were in-person, via e-mail or phone, or in small groups), and at the end of the ten weeks there would be a party where everyone brought food and they celebrated what they had achieved. They did three or four ten-week attacks on goals over the course of a calendar year, with time off around holidays and in the summer, when people were likely to be busy or travelling.

My first thought about this was how strange it seemed, since I was so used to dividing my life into these 16-week segments, two semesters, and the summer. But then I started thinking about the usefulness of having an alternate rhythm, a counterpoint to the academic calendar. I think it could be very helpful to have such a group. I’ve thought about trying to set one up IRL, but haven’t got around to it. Even without the actual group meeting in real time, though, some shorter (but not too short) time divisions in my life could be helpful.

2. Other people in the writing group said it, too: it’s very helpful to have to check in, and to know that other people are struggling with similar problems: how to get down to work, whether it’s okay to count organizing time as contributing to writing, recovering from the problems of OBE. I like to think of myself as an introvert, and it’s pretty plain that I’m not gregarious, but I’ve done as much as I have this summer (about 10K words toward a book, and a conference paper, and some translation), because of the support of two online writing groups and one real-life one. I love feeling that I have company. Partly it’s that the company replaces the discouraging voices in my head. And it is wonderful to get encouragement from other writers. (This is also making me think I have to do more to encourage my students with their writing. I try to do this, of course; but it’s so easy to point out problems, and harder to cheer them on, especially when cheering results in questions like “if I’m doing so well, why is this a C?” How do you come up with encouraging comments that don’t imply you give A’s for effort?)

3. I was reminded of how much gets done in regular work sessions. I know this, of course. But knowing it is one thing, and seeing it happen day after day is something else.

4. I learned that it really does pay off to work on outlining, focus, thesis, and topic sentences. Writing is easy, for me. If you give me a topic and half an hour, I’ll give you 500 words on the topic. They may include some plot summary; they may not be well-organized; but I can most certainly deliver 500 words. This is both good and bad. The good is probably obvious. The downside is that I am often tempted just to keep producing words on related topics, without figuring out what I’m doing. Then at some point I’m struggling to find the pony in a vast heap of manure, juggling pages of printout and crossing out whole paragraphs, underlining the few bits that look like argument, turning (where possible) to a trusted friend who is brilliant at figuring out what I really ought to be saying. This friend’s complicated life means I’m having to think for myself quite a lot more, which is a good thing. Apparently I can come up with an argument when I’m forced to (and after a certain amount of pre/free-writing). The topic sentences I came up with for my summer article are working as thesis statements for chapters. They will undoubtedly undergo revision as the project develops, but they are very, very, very helpful, as are the other entries in the outline I devised for this project. With these, I can sit down and give you 500 useful words.

So despite the pressure I feel to “keep writing,” sometimes the most important thing is to stop writing and start thinking. Z of course said this long ago. (I can’t find the exact post: it was about planning her dissertation carefully, then writing one page a day, and being done in a year. But here and here are related and interesting posts.)

5. (added as an update) I am motivated to do things early. Way early. The closer a deadline comes, the more I panic and struggle. If I ever knew this about myself, I forgot, because of living a life in which deadlines cascaded. But I found this summer that I love getting things done early. Back in July, I turned in a manuscript review a month early, and now I am thanking my Earlier Self for getting that done. It was rather fun at the time; it would be a drag now. There are other things I wish I had done earlier in the summer (syllabi!), and a thing I did just this morning that was due today; but at least, keeping in mind the deadline, I got it in by noon instead of close of business, and it’s off my plate. I expect there will still be problems with deadlines in my life, but I am going to try to apply this discovery in as many ways as I can, and hope that with time, I will clear out all the past-due stuff and move to doing as much as possible well in advance, like Jonathan. Of course this will not stop me having to read committee documents at the last minute, because other people will still turn things in as late as possible; but at least I will not be reading committee homework at the last minute when I meant to be using the same minute for other work.

Yes, I can tell the semester hasn’t started yet, because I am full of good intentions.

Weeding is FUNdamental

Morning writing time today went on the incredibly overgrown garden. I didn’t exactly mean to do that, but such is oh-shit-it’s-August syndrome. I took my tea outside to get the paper, and pulled a couple of weeds, and it was so nice out (yes, nice! not hot! not cold! pleasant!) that I did a few more, and I thought, well, twenty minutes or so and then I’ll go write. There were a lot of weeds with obnoxious roots that wanted to break off, so I was about to stop when I hit a damper patch where they came out easily, so I kept going.

Eighty minutes and a backache later . . . it was clearly breakfast time for me and the cats. And then yoga. And then a vet appointment. And a scheduled House Maintenance Thing. Then I dashed off for my last chance at seeing a friend in a performance.

Tomorrow night there will be a different friend, in a different kind of performance. Opportunities like this are why I live here and not within walking distance of campus; but they are definitely disruptive to work, too.

But the most overgrown part of the garden is 3/5 improved. It’s actually easier and quicker to pull out the big weeds that are there now than it was to deal with the smaller ones that were there before I went to England. Another reason to procrastinate! Woot! Wait till you have big easy problems instead of small difficult ones!

Wait, what?

Anyway. This means that tomorrow I have to get some mulch, to stop (or at least slow) the cycle of weeding and not-weeding.

Syllabus. Book. If I wait, will they turn into big easy problems?

August syndrome

Over at ADM’s new blog some charming people enjoyed my reference to “oh-shit-it’s-August syndrome,” and two weeks ago Notorious wrote about not panicking, so now I’m going to do my own post about the syndrome, and panic, and lists . . . (wait a minute while I freak out, which is what the syndrome is all about).

OK, so there’s what I really have to do, and there’s what I really want to do, and there are all those things that I thought I’d like to get done but need to let go of. And then there’s the question of whether some elements of the last group don’t actually belong there.

It’s August. Classes start in two weeks, with faculty meetings beforehand. Besides writing and class prep and having some last bits of summer fun, I have a couple of medical appointments I’m taking care of before classes start, and possibly one or more dentist appointments depending on whether a sensitive spot calms down or gets worse. (If it’s going to get worse, I wish it would just come on and do it already, instead of waiting for the first or second day of classes.) I’m pretty clear on the have-to (syllabi etc, and at least one House Thing) and the most definite want-to (a little more fun reading and a sewing project).

But then there are writing-related but not-writing activities, which are desirable but not really essential, like tidying up my home office. It’s workable right now. It’s not fabulous. There are heaps of books on my desk. There are more library books on the shelves than I really need right now, especially if I’m mainly focusing on the article that wants to be a monograph. There is a heap of paper stuff that needs to get filed. But all of these are fairly normal procedure, really, and I am working. Since I got back (not counting writing done on the plane), I’ve produced . . . let’s see . . . Basement Cat, get off my research journal . . . about 2000 words. These are what I might call “focused pre-writing,” rather than true rough-draft writing, because the section presently under construction didn’t get as much pre-writing as the first chunk I wrote. But that’s fine. This stage of writing has to happen sometime, and I might as well do it now, while I’m on a roll.

Anyway. Clearly I am managing to work. OTOH, the desk where I worked at the Wilde Wommene’s Colony for Enditers was truly spare. I thought it was actually a little intimidating: no friendly heaps of books, no way to look things up! But I sure got a lot done while I was there. That might just be because of the lack of distractions in the way of cats and household stuff, and because “chapter one” had received more pre-writing, so I had a lot to work with. Nonetheless, you know how writers are magical thinkers, and have to have their Special Writing Clothing, or Special Pen, or Special Coffee Mug? Right. I am wondering if I would do better to have my Specially Cleared Desk.

Certainly I could return some books that are meant for last year’s Current Project (which really needs a better name). The only reason I don’t is that it’s a bit of a hassle to get the interlibrary loan ones back again. But that doesn’t sound like such a good reason, really. If I sent some books to their natural habitats, I could get the heaps off my desk, and maybe be a bit more organized with the current current projects, including class plans.

So is working on my only-manageably-cluttered study a good use of my time that will pay off in greater efficiency down the road, or is it a piece of magical thinking that I should let go of in favor of writing syllabi, working on my sewing project, and hacking back the horribly overgrown and weedy garden? Actually, I am terribly tempted to abandon the garden until frost kills off some stuff—this seasonal nonsense is good for something!—though I do rather fear What The Neighbors Will Think. And, come to think about it, for optimal sewing enjoyment the study-clearing would also be a good thing, because there might then be room to set up the machine in here and not clutter the living room with it. I could give up on the sewing and garden instead . . . if we ever get a cool enough day that I want to be outside.

Thrashing. It’s what oh-shit-it’s-August syndrome is all about.

People I’m not

Obviously there are loads of people I’m not. For starters, I’m neither Ralph nor Tony. I’m thinking more about people I might have been, people I went to school with, where I don’t quite see how I turned out to be me and not them. I already found that a college friend of mine teaches third grade; Lady Maud told me that my childhood best friend is a teacher in the school one of her kids attended last year. And that a junior-high and high school sort of friend, sort of rival, earned a Ph.D. but never found a job and is now changing careers.

I don’t know why this makes me wonder . . . not exactly about paths not taken, but about luck, I guess, escape by the skin of my teeth. I had one job offer, and I took it. I refused to limit my search geographically. I did something “right.” Who knows what? Lady Maud pointed out that I never wanted to work with children. Yeah, but assorted people in my immediate family were elementary school teachers, and my mother wanted me to stay near her, and teaching school was a very suitable job for a young woman (more suitable than graduate school), and why didn’t I succumb to social and familial expectations?

Maud laughed at me. To other people, I guess I look(ed) like a determined go-getter who was not going to let anyone else’s expectations define me.

I’m glad it looked good. It felt totally terrifying. I went abroad, I went to grad school, because I had to get out of where I was. But I did not act out of a cheerful spirit of adventure. It looked like determination and felt like desperation, and it was surely through some undeserved act of grace that graduate school suited me so well. And my rival-friend had so much more cultural capital than I did, back in high school . . . time has probably erased many of the differences I saw then, but in our teens, they were real. I know what she wrote on, and that she finished (maybe started?) later than I did; I don’t know what her geographical or other constraints may have been. She could have been me. I could have been her. And I wonder what similar ghosts haunt other academics. Do we all carry around the albatrosses of the people we avoided becoming? Maybe some of us wish we’d been them, instead of being where and what we are.