Reading Comprehension

A couple of books recently entered this house (actually, books enter this house on a regular basis, and few of them ever leave), and I was struck by the contrast in their style. I have mentioned my reading tastes before: Pamela Dean, Lois McMaster Bujold, Amanda Cross, Angela Thirkell, C. J. Cherryh, and so on. But when I’m not reading mindless fluff, I’m usually deep into something peer-reviewed. I have little patience with jargon-filled obfuscation, but on the other hand, I do expect serious reading to have serious vocabulary.

So when Sir John brought home Willpower (Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney), which has been well-reviewed in such august places as the New York Times, I was surprised by its chatty tone and pop-culture references. Here’s the first paragraph of chapter one, in its entirety: “If you have a casual acquaintance with Amanda Palmer’s music, if you know about her banned-in-Britain abortion song or the ‘Backstabber’ video of her running down a hall naked holding an upraised knife while chasing the equally naked guy in lipstick who was just in bed with her, you probably don’t think of her as a paragon of self-control.”

I have no idea who Amanda Palmer is, nor does this (what I take to be an appeal to popular taste) want to make me read on. I was hoping for a serious treatment of willpower, which is what the reviews led me to expect.

Now, for contrast, here’s the first paragraph of A New Stoicism (Lawrence C. Becker) acquired at the same bookstore, same shopping trip: “After five hundred years of prominence in Greek and Roman antiquity, stoic ethics was pillaged by theology and effaced by evangelical and imperial Christianity. A few stoic philosophers survived, most of them by providing analgesics for use in pastoral counseling, the military, and what then passed for medicine and psychotherapy. Only those shards of our doctrines were widely seen during the Middle Ages, and the term stoic came to be applied merely to people who used remedies. This confusion persists.”

I would have expected serious non-fiction to sound more like example two than like example one. In fact, I am amazed that Willpower has had such good reviews, when it seems to be written for people with a sixth-grade reading ability. But if that’s what we’re reduced to, then no wonder my students don’t know the words “bough,” “clad,” and “boisterous.”

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The Existentialists and happiness

One day Camus had said: “Happiness exists, and it’s important; why refuse it? You don’t make other people’s unhappiness any worse by accepting it; it even helps you to fight for them. Yes,” he had concluded, “I find it sad the way everyone seems to be ashamed of feeling happy nowadays.” I agreed with him completely.

Simone de Beauvoir. Force of Circumstance. Vol. 1: After the War. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Originally published as La Force des choses, Paris: Gallimard, 1963. 162.

I apologize for the translation: I acquired my copies of Beauvoir’s biographies in my middle teens, before I learned French.

At any rate: if even the existentialists believe in being happy, why in the world should the rest of us suffer? It is the weekend, so we will sing.

Reflections on fantasy and real life

Awhile ago there was a blogger who wrote as Professor Me (IIRC); some of you no doubt remember her, or even have the password to her blog. As I recall her blog, it was very appealing, and I read it with the sort of attention and wilfully suspended disbelief that I usually reserve for space opera. She couldn’t get down to academic work until the kitchen was clean, so every night after cooking dinner for her husband and adorable child, she cleaned up and scrubbed the sink, then settled down to writing or class prep.

I loved that image of the clean, tidy, orderly setting for the life of the orderly and productive mind.

At the same time, I noticed that it was achieved at the cost of a fairly traditional division of household labor. The husband was handy at doing household repairs and remodeling, but only the wife cleaned the kitchen.

Now, if it were possible to leave dishes of milk out and attract a brownie who would clean the kitchen every night, I’d go for it, and risk the cats getting diarrhea if they got to the milk first. I guess it would fall to the brownie to clean up, anyway: dude, them’s the breaks if you’re late to work.

But in the absence of brownies, my life is much messier, in all respects, as well as more egalitarian. No one around here is at all handy (except maybe Basement Cat, and we are lucky that he still finds the lack of opposable thumbs a considerable handicap), so if the house needs fixing up, we hire someone else to do it. We share laundry. Sir John shops for groceries, because I hate shopping in all its forms (no, I have no idea where all the shoes came from; maybe some brownie dropped them off). I pay the bills. I cook. Sir John handles the dishes.

Some readers might justly recall David Lodge’s novel Nice Work, in which Robyn Penrose says, “I quite like washing up, it’s therapeutic,” and Vic Wilcox replies, “You don’t seem to need therapy very often.”

The thing is, however you divide the work, you can’t micromanage each other. So tonight I moved some dirty dishes aside to wash vegetables, put a cutting board down over this morning’s newspaper so I could chop them, and got on with the cooking. And then I left the dishes and prepared the guest lecture I have to give tomorrow morning.

This was all clearer in my head when I wrote it as I was cooking dinner. Post-lecture prep, it’s gone fuzzy and the logic is lousy or missing entirely. But it’s supposed to be a sort of meditation on the differences between what we expect or think we want and what our actions show that we really value, and about letting go of expectations. I want to make it clear that I’m not complaining. I sometimes fantasize about a self-cleaning kitchen, but I don’t want it enough to do it myself, or even enough to hire our cleaner for some extra hours. The dishes get done sooner or later, the cleaner scrubs the sink once a week, and that’s good enough. What I do want is home-cooked food (because I am greedy and like my own cooking), and time to do my work, and the ability to think of household work as shared responsibility, not just mine.

Also, I guess, I liked the chance to live vicariously a little, to imagine that someone has time and energy to both clean the kitchen and get the real work done.

Re-booting the semester

Even before Notorious Ph.D. suggested the theme of the re-set button, I had been thinking that I need to re-boot my semester. While I have achieved a couple of significant goals (submitting the fellowship application; adding some polish to a drafted chapter), other areas of my life have suffered: I’m slower than usual to return papers, am not exercising enough, and often don’t get enough sleep. I’d like to start over and aim at a better balance for the remaining weeks of term.

Fortunately, I don’t have any more conferences to go to (I think in general it is a mistake to go to conferences during term-time, at least in three-course semesters). And I have no more hugely significant deadlines, either. There are six more weeks, I guess, for the current ADNWG term, and about the same before I have to turn in a book review (IIRC; maybe I should check that e-mail).

Last week I was suffering a bit of let-down after getting the application done, and also from withdrawal symptoms (oh, am I not supposed to admit being a research addict?). I enjoyed the focus I needed to exert on the application and sample chapter, the feeling that this was the most important thing I had to do and that I could justify dropping everything else lower on the priority list. I also enjoyed having an external deadline, which forced me to put aside some of my perfectionist tendencies. Put those things together with a resolution made earlier this year to submit something, somewhere, in 2011, and I had to look over my various projects to see what I might be able to finish in the next couple of months.

(I know it’s a good thing to have a book that really wants to be written, and I love the conference-paper-turned-book project. But I was so set on sending it out as an article this year. I want more publications!)

So there’s the Macedonian Marginalia Project, which could probably be done in a couple of months; but not these months, when I need to catch up on grading and then prep and grade final exams and projects. I planned to work on the MMP in January-March 2012, and that still seems like a good idea. I will have two courses with the same prep in the spring, and (most likely) a lighter workload on my major committee; that will give me more head-space to think about a fairly complex project in which the argument stands or falls on tiny details. I’d like to wrap it up by spring break, on the theory that the second part of the semester tends to have more grading in it, and also that I will have at least one conference paper to prepare in the later spring.

Then there’s the Unexpected Project that was a conference paper in the summer. When I got that digitized scan that proved I had a third manuscript to deal with, I got all excited and thought maybe that was the piece that I would push out the door by the end of December. And then I checked on what the manuscript actually is and realized that I have a huge problem with the dates, and because of that, I have far less of a viable draft than I had thought. I have to start all over on part of the research for that essay, which is rather discouraging. I wish I’d thought more about this third manuscript at some earlier stage. I knew it was a possibility, but no scholarly source I found said for certain it was the same hand, and I hadn’t seen it myself, and so I just pushed the possibility aside and tracked something that seemed plausible. But “plausible” is now “provably wrong.”

Another possibility for a submission this year was a note related to the Big Volume of Manuscript. But the issues involved are similar to those in the Unexpected Project, and so now I’m spooked about that kind of research and want to be very sure that I’m right before trying to publish anything along those lines. It’s bad enough feeling that I’ve given conference papers that are so wrong; at least I didn’t publish the incorrect Unexpected details.

Anyway, those were the options for alternate goals for this fall. And none is viable, so I’m back to Plan A: finish a decent draft of another chapter of the book, and work steadily if slowly on the Big Translation. It’s a relief, really; my motto for the past few years has been “stick to Plan A,” which works for both small and large plans. I can drive myself crazy thinking up alternate plans and wondering which would be best, for everything from “what to wear tomorrow” to much more significant decisions. I am so much happier when I make a plan and stick to it, with only minor modifications (if it’s colder, wear a wool blazer instead of a linen one; if it rains, wear the rain boots; if short on sleep, stare at a draft of the writing project and tinker with sentences instead of trying to work on the organization).

As an aside, I think a lot of my difficulties with planning and organization are not native, but learned. For me, the Myers-Briggs categories explain a lot. By temperament, I’m fairly strongly J (in the sense of wanting plans and to stick to them; there are other elements to J-ness, and I think finer granularity in the sub-elements makes the MB types work better: when I took the test, each of the four axes had ten sub-elements), but I grew up with parents who must have been super-P. Thus I both had to learn to tolerate the chaos of our household and did not get any decent modeling of how to plan and stay organized. It’s only relatively late in life that I’ve realized how stressful and irritating I find P-ness, in most areas. Sometimes I want to put off a decision while I collect information, but that is something I plan for, and once I make up my mind I don’t want to revisit the decision.

Then wouldn’t I just have stuck to the plan about the chapter all along? No, see, the original Plan A was to write an article, not a book. That’s where the recent thrashing came from. Must. Have. Article. But no. The better part of valor, considering long-term goals, is to accept the change from article to book, and get a chapter finished this fall, so that I can cannibalize it for a conference paper in the spring (if that abstract is accepted) and have two reasonably complete chapters when I start (oh please oh please) a fellowship year of writing.

So the plan for the weekend was to get all caught up on stuff, get enough sleep, get enough exercise, and re-boot the semester this coming week. Goals: continue to write every day, but stop after half an hour or so (unless I really am caught up on everything else). Turn back papers promptly. Prep more thoroughly for the grad class. Exercise an optimal amount on non-teaching days, and a sub-optimal but acceptable amount on campus days. Set a manageable sleep schedule, and stick to it.

It’s a great plan. Sadly, I think Sir John and I both accidentally got caffeinated coffee earlier today. So I’m still wide awake, and expect to be up for awhile yet. I have things to do, of course: grading, notes on books I want to get off my desk, planning. I may not get the sleep schedule sorted out this weekend, but I can at least get caught up (if I don’t start remembering more things I have dropped the ball on!), and I’ll keep working on the sleep thing.

Dating is hell

The new MS is all kinds of interesting, but there is a problem: since the hand is the same, and the MS is securely dated, my identification of last summer is wrong.

Just plain wrong. Impossible. Factually incorrect. As I said then, there’s no way to hand-wave my way out of this.

At least I haven’t made the claim in print. But still: a lot of research and clever connections that I thought had me well on the way to a cool publication, all that is right down the drain.

Calvinball. Humph. I think I just scored against my own side.

OMG ponies!!! Elebenty!!11!

A manuscript scan popped into my inbox this morning.

It’s the same hand
.

This is very exciting.

I know you have no idea what I’m talking about. But it’s good news.

So I have to think about whether I’m sticking with my goal of finishing a book chapter this fall, or whether I want to get on with this other project while it’s relatively fresh in my mind. There is a bit of a problem about visiting this other manuscript, given my teaching schedule. But that’s a mere detail.

The advantages of a long commute

Lately, it seems like I keep seeing comments, blog posts, and Chronicle fora posts about the joys of living close to campus, and how much people’s quality of life improves when they move a five-minute walk away from work. Undoubtedly I am sensitive to such comments, so they may be less prevalent than I have suggested.

For over fifteen (15) years, I have commuted to a job about 60 (sixty) miles from where I live. It takes about an hour in the car, sometimes a bit more depending on traffic. I don’t exactly like the commute. Frequently I add up the number of hours per week I spend in the car, realize that they are equivalent to a day of work, and remind myself that this is why I don’t really have hobbies. On the other hand, I do see certain advantages, if not to the commute, then to living where I do.

1. Perspective. I don’t leave work at work; I normally work a great deal at home. When I’m on campus, I’m usually in class or in a meeting, or having office hours. I have to schedule library time when I need it. But though work comes home with me, the institution recedes into the distance. I can work in my study without having anyone pop in for just a minute; I can work in a coffee shop without seeing anyone I know who wants a quick word about a paper or a committee. It’s clearer to me, from a distance, which tasks really matter to me as opposed to those that someone else wants me to do. The job is a job; it’s not my life. Yes, less time in the car might mean more time for “a life” as most people mean it, but I don’t really want “a life” in the town I work in.

2. The kind of life I want. I like cities. My job is not in a city, but my home is. On days I don’t go to campus, I can enjoy the advantages of city life, including items 3-10:

3. Quicker, easier access to cultural events. Obviously it would be possible to drive in for these from the place where I work, and when I lived there, I did. But it’s nice to get home faster at night, when the show’s over.

4. Good public transportation to libraries and places of cultural significance.

5. Excellent restaurants.

6. A posh gym that I truly enjoy using (and I never see my students in the locker room).

7. Better medical care than is available where I work, and a wider range of insurance options.

8. More sophisticated veterinary care for my spoiled and sickly darlings.

9. Anonymity. Obviously this does not appeal to everyone. Lots of people like being thoroughly woven into their communities, and I know that studies show this is important to happiness and well-being. Sure, if you’re an extrovert. Extreme introverts like me love cities because no one is paying attention to us, no one knows us, no one expects a lot of interaction.

10. More interesting, better-stocked grocery stores. And bookstores. And other shopping. Sure, now we have the Internet, but sometimes it’s fun to browse in person.

11. Decompression time. Intense interaction with people, as in teaching, somehow both exhausts me and gets me all wound up. It’s like being an over-excited little kid at a party, who’s really in need of a glass of milk and a nap instead of cola and cake and more games. The hour in the car alone is a good opportunity to start winding down, to debrief myself about how things went and what I might do next time, to sort out what I really need to tell Sir John and what is just stuff I need to think through on my own.

12. Warm-up time. Similarly, the drive to school helps me get my head around what I’m going to be doing for the day. I don’t plunge from my house into the classroom. Now that I have usually already read (several dozen times) what I’ll be teaching, I can do a lot of class prep in my head, in the car.

13. And, to make it a baker’s dozen, better access to more interesting walking trails and outdoorsy stuff like that. It sounds counter-intuitive, but in an area known for farming, living in a small town does not necessarily put you in a good spot for a nature walk or bike ride, unless you want to check out the amber waves of grain while cars zip past and their occupants yell rudely.

I have many friends and colleagues who love living where they work. As the Grumpy Pair keep saying, my choices aren’t judging yours. I’m weird. That’s not news. But this here’s my answer to the question (usually asked with obivous horror) of why I would undertake this long commute; and notice that this answer doesn’t even open up the two-body issue.

Update; lists

I think the fellowship application is done. Tomorrow I print the final copy (I expect a bit of futzing around with fonts and margins, once I’m on a computer hooked up to a printer). Friday it gets postmarked.

Papers are commented and handed back: without grades, though. We’re going to do some revision exercises and stuff with those papers. I’m thinking what to do about actual grades/credit. I still need a revised syllabus for the rest of the semester.

My guest lecturer for tomorrow just bailed on me this evening. It’s not a situation that can be helped; but that’s so much less time to work on the syllabus, because I need to cover what the guest would have covered.

So, I have ideas for substantive posts (commuting; changes in/because of/after grad program; titles), but they’re not going to get written tonight or tomorrow. We’ll see after that.

Oh, noooes

If I didn’t have to spend most of tomorrow in a series of meetings topped off with a night class, I’d be in great shape with the grading.

Or if my out-of-town friend had visited some other weekend.

Or if I hadn’t stayed up much too late on Friday reading a new book that Sir John got me (really, shouldn’t one show appreciation for presents?).

Unfortunately, I have done those things I ought not to have done and will do other things that I wish I need not do, and at the moment I feel I should go to bed very soon or there will indeed be no health in me. And since this term I am grading hard-copy papers, I will not be able to grade discreetly during tomorrow’s meetings, blast it. Chalk up another point in favor of all-electronic grading, though I still feel that over all, I’m happier marking up paper papers.

A simple tweak

Grading is boring. Mostly. It’s not so much painful as just boring. I’m not frustrated or angry at writing the same comments over and over, and seeing the same mistakes. I expect that. It’s okay. I’m asking my students both to cope with Middle English and to do a kind of detailed literary analysis that most of them aren’t used to. I can teach that, and I do, and by the end of the term most of them will get it, but the first paper shows that they can’t really believe I want what I say I want, and that they feel safer falling back on the kind of thing that has served them in the past. I get that. We can work on all this.

But I get so bored that it’s hard to stick with the task.

And then, finally, I remembered the solution: music! I can’t believe I forgot that. The problem is that I cannot work on writing or other “serious” work with music playing (except in coffee shops, where somehow I concentrate to block it out and that concentration is actually part of the way work in coffee shops happens). So after a summer of quiet work alone in my study, I really do forget that for some kinds of tedious work, music is the answer. It gives my fretful monkey mind something to think about while the teaching brain comments away and plots how to present these lessons the next time we talk about doing this kind of criticism.

So never mind the four papers and a break. Once I got a soundtrack, I sat in front of an open window and worked steadily for a couple of hours, getting through 9 or 10 papers in that time. That’s a respectable rate. I’ll still be grading all weekend, but it’s looking like a less horrid prospect now.

As Z would say, it is the weekend so we will sing.