Random bullets of homecoming

Basement Cat seems smaller than I remembered him, and Glendower larger.

The Tiny Cat is still with us.

I love my gym.  The machines feel right, there’s lots of light, not too much noise, towels are supplied, and they are nice towels that don’t leave bits of white fluff all over me.

The street I live on has been re-paved.  It really, really needed it.  Right now it makes me happy just to drive down the street without the jolts and jars of the old pavement.

I don’t mind the clutter at home as much as I thought I would, because it’s so familiar.  I still want to do some clearing out, but I’m happy not to feel driven-crazy by the house.

The cats have learned to sleep in!  So I can go to the gym in the morning and feed them later.

Unpacking will undoubtedly proceed piecemeal over the next few days.  I am not one of those people who unpack the minute they get home.  I’ve located the gifts to ascertain that they are unbroken and put dirty clothes in the laundry hamper.  I am also not someone who does laundry before going home.  Apparently nearly everyone else on the program didn’t want to pack dirty clothes.  I would much rather do laundry in my customary machine (even when I didn’t have my own machine but used a coin-op machine in the condo basement, this was true), and I can’t believe my dirty clothes are so filthy that they’ll infect everything else in the baggage.  It’s not as if we were camping out.

Anyway, the cats need to check out the luggage.  It’s in the job requirements.

I got peaches at the Farmers’ Market this morning.  And blueberries.  There might be a pie in the offing . . . if I don’t just eat them all with yogurt before a pie can happen.  And if so, then there’s another FM next Saturday.

My laptop’s wireless card now seems to be functioning normally, after being erratic and usually screwed up for the last ten days in England.  I don’t know WTF that was about, but it’s nice to have the internet at my fingertips again.

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What do you want to do when you get up?

I ask because initially I mis-read the title of this post of Fie’s: http://fieuponthisquietlife.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/what-do-you-want-to-do-when-you-grow-up.html

Immediately I started thinking about what I want to do first thing in the morning.  What I need to do is yoga (and usually don’t want to); what I also need (and can usually get myself to do) is vigorous aerobic exercise (don’t ask me why it’s easier to go for a jog or fling myself at an elliptical machine than to sit on a mat and stretch); what I truly want to do is get a cup of tea and go back to bed with my laptop.  I usually do that last thing only when travelling without Sir John, who normally sleeps later than I do.  For the last month, I have had tea and writing in bed nearly every day.  Sometimes it’s my journal, sometimes it’s scholarly writing, but either way, I love my comfortable early-morning sessions, whether there’s sun streaming in the window or whether I enjoy the contrast between the streaks of rain on the panes and my snug nest.

I wish I could do this at home, but the cats think that once a human is up, they should be fed and entertained.  It’s easier on all of us if I run out to the gym, so there is no wide-awake human in the house who refuses feline blandishments.  Maybe I should take my laptop to the gym (there is a hanging-out area there).  Perhaps I’ll try that this fall.  Not on teaching days, when I will have to get out of the house early-early (and will have to fit in writing time in the afternoon, not my favorite), but it’s worth a shot on other days.

Different from you and me

I keep spending time, this summer, with people who work at more prestigious institutions than LRU, and I am always interested in the differences between our attitudes toward the academy.  These matters touch on Flavia’s consideration of privilege, but as usual, I’m going to go off on my own tangent, so I’m writing here rather than chez elle.  I am also partially inspired by the Worst Professor Ever, now enjoying a new life; however, I am clearly one of the people she does not want to be.

Some of what I’m observing is institutional, structural; some has to do with personality.  I have the temperament of a Cistercian.  I’m also a scholar, rather than an intellectual.  I like to focus deeply and narrowly on my research topics, but I’m not greatly interested in the Important Questions of the Day.  I am particularly indifferent to politics, much more interested in science, and not nearly as interested in literature as you would expect an English professor to be.  And the nature of my position at LRU, and the constraints of my life, allow me to indulge these characteristics: I teach the same courses repeatedly.  My commute can be contemplative time, and it also affords an excuse for avoiding social life.  Sir John and his friends are more likely to talk about science than about literature.

A friend who teaches at a SLAC said, when we were talking about structuring requirements for an English major, “Students don’t sign up for classes, anyway; they sign up for professors.”

That was a point of view that had never occurred to me, but I quickly saw why it would seem so to him but not to me.  “Well, at a small school with students who are resident for four years, sure,” I said, “but we have a lot of transfer students, and a lot of returning students, so none of those people are plugged into campus networks that would tell them what to expect of particular professors.  And I rarely teach introductory classes, so I don’t reach an audience that way.  A lot of our students work, sometimes full-time, so they select their classes based on what will fit their work schedule.  And we have a large enough department that a person could easily complete the major without ever having the same professor twice.”

My friend boggled.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I enjoy teaching this population, and I’m glad to be doing it.  But it certainly is different from what a lot of people expect “college” to be like, whether they’re thinking about teaching or taking classes.  My friend’s experience is more in line with those traditional expectations.

Then there were the people I had dinner with, people who work at Ivies or prestigious SLACs, people with distinguished research to their names, who all insisted to each other that teaching is the most important work they do.  Do they truly believe this, or is it a sort of defense mechanism with which they protect themselves from doubts about the significance of their research, precisely because their institutions place so much emphasis on it?  They have fewer students, better-prepared students, students more interested in medieval history and literature than I get; they have graduate students who want to write dissertations and theses under their direction, rather than grad students who want to check off an MA requirement.  So they might well think about teaching differently than I do, for those reasons.

But I think there are at least a hundred people who could do what I do in the classroom, quite likely more, given the rate at which PhDs have been produced in the last decade.  Probably other people could do my research, too, but the thing is, they aren’t.  My particular projects are mine, and they are important to me.  I love them.  I love working on them.  I love figuring out the connections and finding out more about the background of these topics.  My work isn’t important in the sense that it will change the world (sequencing the human genome) or even, probably, the scholarly conversation, but it is important to me and my sense of who I am, and I think it is useful to other scholars in my field.  I did not go into academia from a love of teaching, as my dinner companions claim they did; I came into it because (Cistercian temperament) I thought being locked in the library overnight or for a weekend sounded like a rare treat.  As it turned out, I quite enjoy teaching, and I am at least decent at it, but I also find it a drain on my introvert’s emotional resources.

Again, though, is my present attitude toward both teaching and research a defense mechanism?  LRU is an R1, but it is also teaching-intensive, and recent developments are focusing ever more on teaching (in a way that makes me a little nervous).  So perhaps I deny that teaching is the most important thing I do for precisely the same reason that my dinner companions affirm it, because of insecurities.  They, having fewer students and more writing, hope that human connections matter more than producing books.  I, facing large classes in which it is hard to nurture individual connections, take refuge in writing, through which I can address those individuals who share my interests.  If I had spent my career at a SLAC, Ivy or near-Ivy, no matter my temperament, would I sound more like my dinner companions?

What is structural, and what is personality?  My present job was my first, so I don’t have any personal experience of other types of institutions.   People who do have that may have more insight than I do into the ways an institution molds a person.

What a difference a brain makes

Less than three hours ago, I finished a good, solid draft of the MMP’s companion-piece.

It comes in at a bit over 6000 words, the suggested length of an article for the journal I’m aiming at.  It needs a lot of grooming: adding line numbers (where I was working from the manuscript) and folio numbers (where I was working from the edition), turning vague notes to myself into proper footnotes, and putting it in the format of the journal’s style sheet.  But the hard part, the thinking part, the working out the argument and making it all coherent, that is done.

It’s true I got a lot done earlier this spring and before I got Here.  All the same, most of that was painfully chipped out between other pressing obligations.  It feels quite different to have the luxury of time.  Not just time to work, but also time to relax, to let the back of the brain work, instead of filling up the back-of-brain with the hideous lists of must-do-this, don’t-forget-to-do-that.  Three days.  Three days here was all it took to finish this piece.  Two of those days were spent reading and taking notes.  I took 1800 words’ worth of notes.  Today those 1800 words and a couple of older paragraphs generated 1100 new words for the actual essay; then I moved another 1000 or so words in from the conference paper; and that was that.  And when I say “days” what I really mean is 2-3 hours a day, an amount that you’d think I could find easily enough at home.  But I can’t, not on a regular basis, and even when I can, so many other things (work and non-work) press on my attention.  In a way, although I feel considerable sympathy for Sir John’s present frazzlement, it is a relief to know that dealing with the combination of our fur people and a job drives him, too, round the bend (and he’s better at planning, organizing, and concentrating than I am).  So it’s not just me, not that I am so hopeless at dealing with life and time; as a family, we really have taken on a lot with this particular batch of cats and other choices about how to live.

They are choices.  And I’m not sure I would do anything differently (I’ve listed my reasons for commuting elsewhere).  But it surely is useful to make the comparison between this summer and my normal life.

In the meantime, I have celebrated with a nice lunch in a fifteenth-century building (so appropriate) and a bit of mostly unnecessary but nonetheless useful and satisfying shopping, including pricing Champagne.  Now I am going to prepare class for tomorrow, and then go feed some ducks and gloat a little more.  And tomorrow, the grooming will begin.  If I can get this essay submitted within a week, I’ll let you know which bubbly gets the nod for the celebration.

Events . . . not overcome by them, but events

It’s a rainy Monday morning in my bell tower-level location, and though it’s fully morning here I rather enjoy the feeling that I’m up before dawn in the US. I might even be able to get a recommendation letter submitted before the person who needs it sends me another reminder. Most of my students are in someone else’s class right now, so that gives me time in which I can write. Do yoga. Go to the gym. Prep class. Write that recommendation. Go to the library. Print out a problematic chunk of the current writing project, read through it, and list “what I have/what I need,” create a new outline, and then write it. Do a couple of errands. Check e-mail. Write letters. Um. Stop!

I’m supposed to have a schedule that makes time to do all these things. It worked pretty well last week, with tweaks here and there (slept too late to get to the gym and still get to breakfast on time? Go to breakfast and hit the gym later in the day). Today I started with writing (well, actually, reading through the above-mentioned problematic chunk and separating out some stuff I intend to print out in a little while), then posted over at amstr’s Writing Account, had muesli instead of going to breakfast in Hall, and now have to figure out the rest of the morning.

Last night I slipped on wet cobblestones and wrenched my wonky ankle. It’s not swollen, but it does hurt a little, so I have been intermittently wrapping it in damp towels rendered cold in the refrigerator, then elevating it, and wrapping it in a colorful scarf when the cold packs come off. Hence the importance of doing a little yoga, to see how that feels, before making a decision about the gym, which may or may not be advisable. I need vigorous exercise every day, but if the ankle’s going wonky again, I’ll have to leave it alone for a few days and deal with the other physical consequences.

On the plane, I worked out a list of scheduled research tasks for the first couple of weeks here. I’m only slightly behind. I might even be able to catch up, though the better part of valor would probably be to recalibrate the list. It is very satisfying to meet clear, daily goals, however, and I enjoyed that immensely last week.

One of my colleagues commented on the physical demands of life here, compared with home, where he drives everywhere, takes the elevator to his office, sits in a cushy chair, watches TV with remote in hand; whereas here he must walk, climb stairs, carry purchases. I laughed. My life here is so much easier than at home: I can walk everywhere, instead of driving an hour each way to and from campus; I have two big desks I can work at; I have no cats to knock things off the desks or spread themselves out all over whatever I’m trying to work on; I only need to shop for one; there are no cats to feed, exercise/play with (Glendower needs a lot of this, it’s not just to amuse myself), separate from fights, groom, take to the vet, etc; limited social life; no garden (at least, not that I’m responsible for); I have an order of magnitude fewer students than I did last term; in short, I feel that I have died and gone to research heaven.  Except that poor Sir John is going round the bend dealing with everything at home, and I experience this as pressure to WRITE ALL THE THINGS so that he will feel his sacrifices are worth it.

But being away from ALL THE THINGS (the household things, not the writing things) makes it clear to me how many things there really are in my normal life.  Distracting things.  Events.  Tasks.  I don’t just mean physical things, though it does cross my mind that a good purge at home might make life a little simpler (don’t hold your breath, though; I am the child of hoarders, and though I am far, far better than my father, it’s not so easy for me to get rid of stuff once it has entered my house).  But seriously, even a two-person household where both people pull their weight just has a lot more going on, especially once you add four special-needs cats.

(Awful thought: do we just drive our cats crazy?  Would Glendower be fine in another household?  I would prefer to think that he would be a nut-job anywhere and that we are saving him from an indefinite stretch of shelter life or repeated try-outs with families who decide he is too difficult and take him back.  We watch My Cat from Hell and make changes that seem appropriate; we have lots of places to climb and hide; and Glendower is much better when somebody spends a lot of time playing with him.  But he does have good days and bad days regarding the other cats.  Basement Cat has mellowed enormously, so I hope once Glendower is a few years older, he’ll become a nice cat, too.)

Anyway, since amst asked us to think about the OBE problem, I’m thinking over here, digressively it’s true.  I’m thinking that in normal life, we’re often like those slowly-heated goldfish who don’t realize their environment is becoming unbearable.  We take on one thing, then another, get used to juggling plates, add in a flaming torch, and just keep going, until the day when it’s all too much.  Although I wish I could suggest that everybody take some time away like I’m doing right now, that is unrealistic; a lot of us have more work in the summer (especially if you have to make arrangements for children who aren’t in school).  What I do suggest is that you count up the plates, flaming torches, and everything that you are doing and be cognizant of it.  You may not even be able to stop juggling.  But maybe you could cut yourself some slack if you’re feeling pressured.  Give yourself credit for what you’re doing.