(In)flexibility

An interesting discussion is going on towards the end of the comments to my last post, about whether academic schedules are flexible, how flexible one should be in scheduling oneself outside of what one’s college requires (“mindful inflexibility,” in Sitzfleisch’s marvelous phrase, is one possibility), and similar topics, so let’s haul it out into a post of its own.

Here are my thoughts, probably rather jumbled:

Academic schedules are in some ways completely inflexible. When you’re scheduled to teach a class, you have to show up. Sure, it’s possible to get a sub every now and again, or show a movie, but at the college level, who is going to substitute? A professor, by definition, is the ranking expert on a topic in a department. In larger departments, you may actually have three or four people who cover the Renaissance and can substitute for each other (even if one really specializes in religious prose, s/he can probably manage a Shakespeare course for one day), and in smaller departments, you may have a larger proportion of generalists, but by and large, if you’re teaching in your area, then it’s you who needs to show up, and if you don’t, you’d better be pretty damned sick or pretty damned well required to be elsewhere. (Graduate students may be another option to cover a course, but again, you have to both be in a department that teaches grads and have a grad who knows enough to teach a class on the scheduled topic.)

Thus, everything else in your life works around your course schedule. You don’t take half a sick day to go to the dentist unless you’re in agony. If you’re scheduled to teach at 8:00 a.m. or 7:00 p.m. or whatever other time, you have to be there. Sometimes, as in my first semester in my job, you’re scheduled for 6-9 one evening followed by 9-10 the next morning, which can be rough, as Dr. Crazy recently attested. Of course there are people outside of academia who do night work, or work rotating shifts, as nurses and firefighters, for example, sometimes have to. But mostly people with office jobs work something like 9-5, maybe 8-6 or some other minor variation.

There are some schools that require so many office hours that you’re going to be on campus effectively 9-5, M-F. There are some departments with control-freak chairs who insist that their faculty be on campus 9-5, M-F (I’m told that there was one such in LRU’s English department, before my time; the night owls were profoundly relieved when he stepped down). If you’re in the sciences, then you may need to be in the lab for long and regular hours.

But in the humanities, you don’t need a lab or special equipment. You really just need books, paper, and something to write with; or maybe you need a computer, but we (academics) nearly all have our own personal computers and/or laptops and/or tablet computers, these days. And that means we can work anywhere, anytime.

Therein lie both problems and opportunities. If people are always dropping into your office to shoot the breeze when you’re trying to grade or do research, then of course you want to go to the library, the coffeeshop, or your home office so you can get something done. If you’re a night owl then you want to work noon to nine, or even six p.m. to three a.m.; if you’re a lark, you may long for a five a.m. to one p.m. schedule and be totally done in by those night classes. If (like me) you dislike shopping in crowds, then you want to get your errands done early when the stores are quiet, even though that ruins a morning’s work time, because shopping on a busy Saturday afternoon is such a nerve-shattering experience. And so there you are working on Saturday afternoon because you need to make up for the morning you spent on important Life Maintenance tasks.

I have observed that people who spent two-three years in the office world, working 9-5 (or similar) really are better at organizing their time and sticking to schedules than a lot of the career-academic types. Shorter periods don’t tend to be so instructive. In the year I took between undergrad and grad school, I did have a 9-5 job. I also had two other part-time jobs, one Tuesday evening and Saturday morning, and one that was MWTh evenings and sometimes weekend afternoons, and on my lunch breaks and on the bus I studied Latin. After that, my grad school schedule was a breeze.

So if you’re an organized academic, then you work out your mindfully inflexible plan: Monday 7-9, 1-7; Tuesday 7-8, 10-5; Wednesday 7-8, 1-10; Thursday 1-5; whatever it may happen to be that gets you to your classes, your meetings, your research time, your grading time, your dentist appointment, your grocery shopping, and your exercise time. (What exercise time? some of you say. Well, some of us would be incapable of work if we didn’t work out, so we find it. Here again, there can be flexibility: I’ve read a lot of academic books and articles on the elliptical trainer or exercise bike, though the treadmill doesn’t work so well for reading and the pool is right out.)

If you’re not so organized, or if life circumstances conspire to ruin your plan, then there you are, working at midnight on Saturday to make whatever deadline it is this time.

So, go ahead: are you flexible, inflexible, rolling with the punches, powering through on caffeine, forced by health considerations to look after yourself, sandwiched between your small children and your aged parents so that you get your work done in doctors’ waiting rooms and on planes, early-career working 80 hours a week to get your prep and research done, late-career and able to say No and focus on your own priorities? What do you do, what would you like to do, what do you observe your colleagues doing, what advice would you give others?

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Big changes or small ones?

Time for another Monday check-in and goal-setting. I’m not going to call roll; we’ll take care of attendance via in-class writing. If you’re here, leave a comment.

The usual advice about making changes in one’s life is to start small and be specific. Rather than saying “get healthy” or “lose 50 pounds,” you’re supposed to to say “I will walk for 10 minutes a day” or “when I want a cookie, I will eat a piece of fruit first.” Small changes add up, and little shifts like more exercise and more fruit can lead to larger lifestyle differences. Some of you are thinking along these lines, like Z’s resolve to work 25 minutes a day for three days.

I have myself found that these small changes can be helpful and long-lasting. That said, sometimes it’s more helpful to make one single big decision rather than trying to work out a lot of small stuff. For instance, if you’re capable of quitting something cold turkey, well, that’s a decision made that you never have to revisit. You’ll never again smoke a cigarette, have a drink, eat meat, whatever. When you’re tempted, you say you’ve made that decision, it’s not negotiable, you’re not revisiting it.

This does not work for everyone, or in all circumstances.

Possibly it’s not going to work for me this time, either, but I’m going to give it a shot this week. This is my big change: I’m going to work from 9-1, Monday to Friday. Everything else has to get done before or after that. Exercise, cat wrangling, phone calls, blogs, paying bills, novel reading, sorting closets, meals, shopping, cooking, if it’s not work, it has to happen before 9:00 a.m. or after 1:00 p.m. What’s more, I’m not going to do work outside of those four hours, either (that’s the part that really freaks me out, actually). Afternoons and evenings will go to fun stuff or at least life-maintenance stuff.

I’m tired of trying to work out the optimum schedule, of trying to figure out whether, when I get up, I should first write, go for a walk, do yoga, feed cats, or hit the gym. Since fall classes ended, what happens first generally depends on what time I wake up and whether or not it’s sunny. Clearly I’m capable of sticking to a schedule when I have to, because I always show up on time for my classes. I have written before about enjoying the flexibility of academic life, but I think I should give inflexibility a chance, for once. Nine-to-one, some translation, the MMP, some class planning, some other academic work, and then I’m done. We’ll see how it goes for a week.

So what are you going to do this week? Make a small change? Try a bigger one? Keep doing something that has been working? Sometimes it’s good to stick to what works, and sometimes it’s good just to change things up so you don’t get stale.

Weak, grouchy, grinchy, whiny SAD post

I’m not sure what sort of strength it is to suffer from seasonal affective disorder. Maybe the other side is the energy I have from April to October, or that I would be a superhero if I could just live in the right climate. But at the moment, that last post is sitting here mocking me, so I’m going to try to exorcise the grumps with a new entry.

The good news: the Solstice has passed. Tomorrow will give us five whole seconds more daylight than today. But it is getting better. For the next six months, every day will be lighter (though it will take 6-8 weeks to get out to where the difference is really worthwhile, and three months till I will shift gears into summer-light mode).

Also good: in a few days, I will be able to go out without hearing trite Christmas music everywhere. Tomorrow is one bit of family festivity (preceded by the dentist, oh joy), and the 24th is another (preceded by baking for it); then on the 25th we can go to a movie and veg out and then the horror will be over for this year.

The bad: now it’s winter. And we have grey, dank, drizzly weather. I want sun. I’d take snow over this dreary version of winter. Snow is bright. And Sir John loves it, so at least one of us would be happy and one would be several degrees less wretched.

Time passes. The holidays will pass, the weather will pass, the winter will pass. Soon enough, I’ll have to show up for classes and act like I’m in my right mind, which will help; and before we know it, spring break will arrive and then it will be conference season.

It’s just these short days that seem so long. So dreary, and so pointless. Even with my full-spectrum light, and exercise outdoors early in the day, and more exercise, and baking and so on. Maybe I should just start going to Morocco by myself.

Our strengths are our weaknesses

I believe this is true in all areas of life. The key is to find a way to make your weaknesses serve you. Jonathan Mayhew has a number of posts about taking inventory, establishing your scholarly base, and so on; if you’re not familiar with the concept, maybe you’d like to check out some of his ideas this week, and think about what your strengths and weaknesses as a writer are.

One of my strengths is an ability to write quickly. One of my weaknesses is trouble organizing an argument, or even coming up with an argument in the first place. These may not be exactly the two sides of the same coin, but they are related: I can easily produce a lot of verbiage that doesn’t really go anywhere, although it sounds plausible if I run it by you quickly, as in a conference paper. But coming up with an argument (beyond, “Wow, this is cool!”) and getting it organized, this is hard, slow work for me (not least because I don’t always know a good argument when I have one).

During this intersession, then, I’m trying to harness the strength to make up for the weakness. What the MMP really needs is a strong framework to support all its details: an overview of the fields where this research matters, and a clear statement of how the MMP contributes to these fields. I made a list of the topics the MMP might contribute to, and I’m using the writing-quickly strength to produce around 500 words on each of the topics. Sometimes it turns out that I have more ideas than I thought I did; sometimes I just come up with questions that I can’t answer without doing more research. But if I can identify the questions sooner rather than later, that’s a good thing.

So: can you use the idea of making your strengths serve your weaknesses, or turning a weakness into a strength?

Roll call, based on the latest info I have from you all:

ADM: finish grading, then get Rewrite.

Contingent Cassandra: 3 or so short writing sessions per week.

DEH: Last week’s goals were to work 2 hours a day and do three 500-word directed free-writing sessions.
Achieved: work was intermittent because of illness, but I have done three 500-word directed freewriting sessions (actually 545, 624, and 604 words). They were supposed to be on particular topics, but kept drifting back to my central questions, What can we tell? and Why do we care? I’ve come up with new questions, whose answers (when I find them) may help with the central questions.
New goals: one library day (check out books, consult reference works), another day or half-day if possible before Wednesday (then the library will be closed till January). Read and take notes on at least 3 books/articles. Start working on an outline, using the format that worked for the sections-turned-chapters of the Unexpected Book.

Digger: finish schoolwork by 20 Dec. Then, finish the Why Wheels chapter.

EAM: lit review.

GEW: I’d like to read 30 pages of primary text and and freewrite for 15 minutes at least four times during the rest of the week. In addition, I will decide which texts to take with me on my trip (space is limited!).

Highly Eccentric: at least 1/2 a day every day to finish a chapter by 3 Jan.

Ink: finish grading. Then revise previous novel chapters, write two new chapters, put in two hours a day.

Luo Lin: make plan.

Matilda: finish encyclopedia entries, 2 hours a day.

nicoleandmaggie: finish a draft.

Profacero: at least 25 minutes of work by Monday night.

rented life: finish grading. [For 2-week break: 44 hand-written pages (small journal sized pages) that need to be typed up and then I need to compile it with what I already have written and see where my (fiction) project is going]

Sapience: finish re-reading my primary texts (14 novels total, 10 to go) and outline the rest of my argument.

Sisyphus: find/collect everything I need for the article and pack it. And refresh my article to-do list.

Sitzfleisch: complete academic book proposal due in January.

Theologoumenathon: lit review for my next project.

Trapped in Canadia: read and review one book and finish the book chapter about my mob. My goal is to write two hours a day, but three hours would make me super happy.

Waytogohomesteader: write a page a week.

Zcat: goal for week one is to write 500 words a day.

If you’re writing over break . . .

and if you were starting with the Winter Writing Workshop this week, then it’s Friday already, and that means that in 3 days we’ll be doing the next week’s check-in.

If you’re still grading, GOOD LUCK! Hang in there! It will get done, the students will go away, time to breathe and write and exercise and eat holiday cookies is right around the corner.

Now, I’ve been sick all week, and all I’ve done so far in the way of work is a bunch of conference-related stuff. Well, and about 600 words of notes on a book, plus reading some articles I didn’t take notes on and probably should have. But I haven’t done any actual MMP-writing, not even the directed free-writing I assigned myself, so I’m thinking that it’s time to start.

Right.

Now.

Because though I’m still not all well, at the moment I can breathe, and my eyes don’t burn, and so I am going to do a bit of writing. So I’ll have something to report on Monday.

And so I am posting this not only for my own accountability, but to point out to anyone else in the WWW who might be in the same position that we still have a few days (and anyone who’s buckled down and got way ahead can gloat a little bit—yeah, go ahead, you know you want to).

What we teach when we teach Chaucer

“Chaucer” to most people means the Canterbury Tales. But should it? Over the years, I think I’ve taught every Chaucerian work in the canon, except for “A Treatise on the Astrolabe” and “Anelida and Arcite,” at least once, and yes, I do include the Melibee in that list. For graduate classes, the syllabus has varied more widely than for the undergrads—even though many grads have not had any undergrad Chaucer, or even any undergrad medieval lit, so there is an argument for giving them a “standard” Chaucer, too.

If there is such a thing as a “typical” undergraduate Chaucer course in my repertory, it tends to include several of the Canterbury Tales plus one of the less famous texts, usually either Troilus and Criseyde or the Book of the Duchess. Lately I’ve just been doing Canterbury Tales and short lyrics.

My recent trawl through other people’s syllabi suggests a fairly even division between CT-only courses and CT-plus-Troilus courses. It has been a few years since I last taught Troilus, and I want to bring it back. In fact, I want to make it the main focus of the class, because I think then I could structure the course in a way similar to the way I structure my Arthurian class, which usually goes much more smoothly than the Chaucer classes: begin with a modern translation of an early source (Latin or OF), and only deal with Middle English after the broad outlines of the plot have been digested. This also allows me to introduce close reading through analyzing different translations of a single Latin sentence, along with a representation of that sentence accompanied with a super-literal translation plus parsing; after that, the whole idea of the close reading goes a little better.

But since people seem to think “Chaucer = Canterbury Tales,” I suppose I had better include some of them. Let’s put it this way: what tales would you be absolutely shocked to learn that an English major didn’t know? Channel your inner old fart, and comment.

Or, if you’re not amused by fart jokes (some Chaucerian you are, in that case), which tales “go” best with TC? (Your litel tragedie, does it go? Bet it does, bet it does!)

Time is not infinitely elastic

Welcome to the Winter Writing Workshop! Most of you have a clear goal that sounds reachable in 4-6 weeks’ steady work. Some of you may still be doing triage: what absolutely has to be done, now? How much distraction will there be from holiday shopping and parties, or from job market angst and conference-going? How much time do we need for getting back to a good exercise routine, or for excavating the laundry pile, or any other necessary real-life activities?

So let me urge you to Pick One. We all have lists. Give yours the hairy eyeball.

But first, think about your time. How many weeks do you actually have? Where will you be during that time? How much time must you spend on non-work activities? How understanding is your family about your need to work during “vacation”? Winter breaks can be hard to work in, because they’re short, they involve holiday stress, they come at what for most of us is a cold, dark, depressing time of year (Zcat, can all of us with SAD come and visit you down under?), and our libraries and universities may close to save money during at least part of them.

So, can you schedule two hours a day in a coffee shop? Can you put in four hours a day at home? Do you reliably have one hour in the evening, and other less predictable time here and there? Add up that time first; then look at your list again, and figure out which item you can do in that amount of time.

Consider, as well, your longer-term goals and term-time work habits. Will you be better served by getting an ugly rough draft of something that is now only notes, so you can revise it when you go back to teaching? Or would you prefer to get something almost-ready revised and out the door before you go back?

Make a plan, and post a comment about it. And again, welcome. Turn on your broad-spectrum lamps, crank up the space heaters, pour yourself a drink and stick a little paper umbrella in it, and we’ll all pretend we’re writing around the pool at some tropical resort. (If you actually like winter, carry on, but don’t tell me about it.)

My goal is to read/write at least 2 hours a day. Four will be ideal. But if I do two, that’s enough. Because, you know, the gym, the excavation, and so on. I’d like to turn this into a game, and see how many days and weeks I can get up to four.

The current participants:

Another Damned Medievalist (hereafter ADM): finish revisions

Contingent Cassandra: finish article

Digger: finish project

Good Enough Woman (hereafter GEW): not come to a standstill

Elizabeth Anne Mitchell (hereafter EAM): lit review

Highly Eccentric (Naked Philologist): either atoning for sins or committing more; I can’t tell.

Ink: fiction?

Matilda: finish draft of paper

nicoleandmaggie: finish draft?

Sapience: article due 15 Jan.

Sisyphus: finish article

Theologoumenathon: hang onto groove

Trapped in Canadia: finish book chapter

Zcat: Finish article

Updated to add:
Luo Lin: finish article

Profacero: resubmit one article (that might be two combined, or two separate)

Vocabulary

I keep saying that I think my students’ trouble with ME is not so much ME as small vocabularies in PDE. I’m still working my way through the last batch of translations on the final exam (while wiping my nose, and sneezing, and feeling generally yucky), and I started making a list of perfectly good words that more than one person is having trouble recognizing:

adversity, arse, assent, aught, churl, deem, ere, grisly, haunch, privily, proffer, suffer (in the sense of “allow”), sunder, twain, villainy.

“Arse” keeps coming out as “ears.” It’s not like we didn’t talk about what happens in the Miller’s Tale.

Then there are a couple of phrases that I think of as somewhat archaic, but still, I would have expected them to be recognizable to English majors: “must needs” and “plight troth.”

I’m thinking next year’s exam will have fewer chunks to translate and a very strong insistence on producing grammatically correct sentences that make sense in PDE.

Weekend bullets

  • Sir John has had a cold for several days. I think I’m finally getting it. So I’m staying up late to try to finish grading before I feel awful.
  • Of course I should have finished already.
  • Why, with all the “teaching to the test” that presumably happens in schools these days, can my students not manage to read and follow simple instructions?
  • Grading the outlines of essays (on exams) goes much faster than grading translations.
  • I can’t believe I made it through the whole semester without getting sick; but then, why now? Why could I not just avoid illness altogether?
  • I would much rather be working on the MMP, and this morning I procrastinated for awhile by staring at handwriting snippets trying to decide if one A resembled another. Or not.
  • On a related handwriting question, I found a reference to an opinion of Ian Doyle’s that was . . . wrong. Not in a major way, but he left out a perfectly legible* letter. My world reeled.
  • *Perfectly legible if you read English secretary hands.
  • Every time I look at an example of secretary, I panic and think all my skills have fled, or maybe I was deluding myself all along. It takes several minutes to get my eye in and start seeing the shapes again.
  • Really I should be thinking big-picture thoughts about the MMP, not tiny-detail thoughts. Have I mentioned that I’m nearsighted?
  • Must finish grading translations. Then if I’m sick tomorrow I can spend days lying on the couch watching B5 DVDs and drinking toddies, guilt-free.

Winter Writing Workshop with the Dame

In the last ADNWG meeting of the fall term, I proposed a six-week winter intersession group for those of us who are trying to get some writing done over the holidays.

I’m in it because, as long-term readers know, I hate cold, winter, and the December holidays, and since I can’t spend the entire month in Morocco or Malaysia, I’m going to distract myself this year with the Macedonian Marginalia Project, an article I had hoped to finish over a year ago.

It seemed so simple when I started; but this week when I was looking up call numbers for books I need to check out for the MMP, in addition to my usual DA, PR and Z suspects, we also have DF, LC, and Q. This probably says something about the complexity of what I’m trying to do.

So, anyway, this post is the invitation, advance warning, whatever you want to call it. Starting Monday, 12 December, when my grades have to be in, I’m going to post weekly goals and progress reports for myself. LRU starts up again the day after MLK Day, so January 16 will be the official end of the intersession. However, I expect I’ll still be tinkering (how I hope it’s only tinkering) till the end of January, so there will be a couple more “unofficial” Monday posts where late papers can trickle in.

I know we’re not all on the same schedule; some of you may still be teaching. So this workshop will be less structured than ADNWG. You can start late and finish late, or drop in for three weeks and then drop out again.

If you’re interested in taking part in the Winter Writing Workshop, please leave a comment, and I’ll post the starting list of participants and goals on Monday.