Not entirely unfortunate

Unfortunately, I did not get nearly enough sleep.

Fortunately, waking up early meant I got to campus in plenty of time to make copies for my first class, a process that (unfortunately) was more complicated than it used to be, thanks to unfortunate cost-cutting measures imposed by the Powers That Be.

Unfortunately, no deus ex machina prevented today’s main event.

Fortunately, I was teaching during it and was able to spend the morning communing with Great Minds from the past and thinking about topics I love, instead of being subjected to the news. I may spend a lot of time living far in the past, over the next few years, unless that deus shows up at some point.

Unfortunately, I still haven’t prepared my documents for annual evaluations. I spent the afternoon grading, instead, which might seem unfortunate except for the alternatives. I avoided the news successfully and felt like a wonderfully efficient and dedicated professor.

Fortunately, I have the weekend to do the damned evil documents. “Eval,” that should read, but thank you, autocorrect, that is a fortuitous correction.

Unfortunately, I have a considerable number of Life Stuff tasks that I would like to take care of this weekend, without facing up to what I have achieved in recent years. I have done those things I ought not to have done, and left undone those things I ought to have done, and there is no health in me—could I just write that in place of my scholarship report?

Fortunately, I have one truly awesome comment from a student evaluation of my teaching, which I can report on the teaching form: one of the most discerning and intelligent students it has ever been my pleasure to teach compared me to Minerva McGonagall. That made my day, week, and month. A small thing, but a definite consolation.

Tempest-uous Spring Planning

I will be teaching The Tempest in the spring. I thought I had taught it sometime, maybe ten years back, and had some assignments to draw on. But as I search my files, it appears that I haven’t taught it since I was in graduate school.

Oh-kay. Well. I’m sure it will be fine. Advice would nonetheless be welcome. Even more welcome would be suggestions of one or more short stories with which I could pair the play: stories with thematic connections, or in which characters refer to The Tempest, or are acting in it, or reading it at school, something like that. My idea, if I can get a suitable story, is to read it first, in order to generate questions about its allusions that could be solved by reading the play itself. Thus, I’m not picky about genre. A story that belongs to the SF/fantasy genre, or aims at a YA audience, would be fine. Even fan-fic, so long as it’s tolerably literate and has a recognizable story structure.

Ideas? Anyone? Bueller?

Productive procrastination, or Working when Stupid

I’ve been sleeping poorly, again, which makes it difficult to focus during the day.

I know what’s wrong. My wonky ankle has been acting up, so I’m resting it, which means I’m not working out, which means I don’t sleep so well. This will pass. The ankle will improve, and I will work back up to a decent level of cardiovascular exercise, and all shall be well. In the meantime I try to do more yoga and other relaxing things before bed.

Anyway: what to do on a work day when I have stacks of (well, three) articles to revise, and I don’t feel like I can grasp my own arguments, let alone anyone else’s? Answer: write syllabi and plan spring classes. Tired and fuzzy-headed (or, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid) is the perfect state to work on these tasks. When I’m alert and intelligent, I get over-optimistic about wildly creative, innovative ideas that require lots of energy and a clear head to put into practice in the classroom, and I forget that I may not have those attributes on the future days when I will need them. When I’m tired, I recognize that bad days happen, and that it would be a good idea to re-use old assignments (tweaking as appropriate); to omit or re-schedule that reading that always needs Extra Energy and Enthusiasm!!!; and to leave some flex days on which I can either experiment with a new innovative assignment as a low-stakes, in-class activity so that I can work out potential problems with it, or else, if the flex day is a low-energy day, show a relevant movie or You-Tube clips with discussion of same.

Some more alert and intelligent Future Self will have to look over today’s plans to make sure I haven’t done anything really stupid, like putting all the wrong dates on the syllabus or scheduling two separate sets of readings for the same weeks. Even so, today I’ll get something useful done, and my Future Self will be glad to have a chunk of the work at least drafted.

Chaucerian grades: re-post

Since the end of the semester is upon most of us, I offer this grading scale from four years ago:

A

Right as oure firste lettre is now an A,
In beaute first so stood she, makeles.
Hire goodly lokyng gladed al the prees.
Nas nevere yet seyn thyng to ben preysed derre.

B

Al that writen is,
To oure doctrine it is ywrite, ywis;
Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille.
. . . . . . . . .
Thow hast thee wel yquit
And gentilly.  I preise wel thy wit,
Considerynge.

C

The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne,
Th’assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge. . . .
Of usage—what for lust and what for lore—
On bokes rede I ofte, as I yow tolde.
But wherfore that I speke al this?

D

Namoore of this.
That ye han seyd is right ynough, ywis,
And muchel moore; for litel hevynesse
Is right ynough to muche folk, I gesse.
I seye for me, it is a greet disese.

F

Thy drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord.
Thou doost noght elles but despendest tyme.

 

Hang in there. Every pile of papers comes to an end. If there are just too many, send some to me or JaneB and we’ll let our cats shred them for you!

Friday, fortunately/unfortunately

Fortunately I could sleep till I woke up.

Unfortunately, that was later than I hoped I’d be up.

Fortunately, I have finished writing the final exam I will give next week.

Unfortunately, I have still not finished the R&R I hoped to be done with last month.

Fortunately, now I have some time to work on it.

Unfortunately, if I work on the R&R, I will not get the undergrad papers graded today. Or maybe that’s a “fortunately.”

Fortunately, I can also grade papers tomorrow or Monday.

Unfortunately, I may have to go to campus Monday for one single meeting.

Fortunately, since it is now noon and no agenda has been posted, there is a good chance that that meeting may not happen.

Unfortunately, needing to finish writing the final exam, combined with late rising, means I didn’t go to the yoga class I hoped to attend this morning.

Fortunately, the same teacher gives another class tomorrow.

Mehr ändert es

Concerning Marburg, I could tell endless anecdotes, but it is impossible to write them down—and this not only has to do with external reasons. All over, there was not much wisdom required . . . , only a certain amount of composure (which was not always easily available). Besides, there was more foolishness than wisdom. At Marburg, I am living among people who are not of our origin, and whose conditions are very different—but who, nevertheless, think exactly as we do. This is wonderful, but it implies a temptation for foolishness; the temptation consists in the illusion that there is a ground to build upon—although individual opinions (however numerous they may be) simply do not count. Only this voyage liberated me from my error.

Erich Auerbach, writing to Walter Benjamin from Florence, 6 October 1935.

Quoted in Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, “ ‘Pathos of the Earthly Progress’: Erich Auerbach’s Everydays,” in Literary History and the Challenge of Philology: The Legacy of Erich Auerbach, ed. Seth Lerer (Stanford UP, 1996), 13–35 (p. 16).

Job changes

Not mine. That is, every month it seems we’re supposed to be more excellent with less money, but that’s been going on for so long that I don’t think it qualifies as a change.

No, I recently did a little web-stalking of an ex-colleague (I’m beginning to think I should have a separate category for reporting on the results of web-stalking). This person worked with me, oh, maybe ten years ago, and, like me, commuted because of a two-body problem. In this case, there were small children in the mix, combined with the ultimate inability of a partner with a prestigious but not-so-employable Ph.D. to find a suitable permanent academic position.

My colleague quit.

Both partners spent awhile cobbling together jobs, benefits, networking opportunities. These included adjuncting and freelancing and temporary positions involving soft money. And as of a few years ago, both are employed in very responsible positions in the non-profit sector in a very cool West Coast city, the sort of place I’d be glad to live.

But would I want to work my way through five or six jobs, including a period of hustling for freelance work, in order to get there?

Oh hell no.

Possibly if I were younger and more energetic, the calculation would come out differently, but I’m lazy. I like to set it and forget it, in every area possible: marriage, job, finances. I want to live my life, not have to scramble to move up, move on, make the right connections. Long-term readers know I whine a lot about being homesick for the west coast, but I don’t hate where I am. I don’t love it, but it is a decent compromise that lets me lieben und arbeiten at a lower cost of living than in most of the places I’d like to be, which in turn means I can travel to places I like. I love the job security of tenure. Scrambling in Paradise would be a nerve-wracking situation for me.

Maybe if my Ph.D. were in economics or CS or engineering, I’d feel differently about it. However, considering that all my degrees are in areas that made many people ask “And what are you going to do with that?” while I was working on them (“cram my diploma edgewise into the mouth of the next person who asks that” was a response that frequently came to mind), I’m pretty happy to be a professor at LRU, despite the excellence without money scenario. Could the situation be better? Certainly. Could it be worse? Definitely. I’m happy for my former colleague, but glad I don’t wear those shoes.

 

On perspective, again

I made such a long comment at Undine’s that I thought I should bring it over here.

Caveat: this is definitely about the individual. If you are in a truly oppressive environment, you may need to work for change, or change jobs, or at least not beat yourself up for not being able to manage your job via managing your feelings. But if you’re in an only ordinarily difficult situation—budget cuts, lots of students, wondering how to get your own writing done, feeling that other people are somehow coping better—then here’s what I have to offer.

Here’s my suggestion for living in academia with less anxiety: don’t be a perfectionist. Just do your work. Don’t feel that everything has to be done right now, or perfectly. Write first. Then prep and grade. Go to the meeting and participate. Fill in the forms when you have time (will your students really not have books if the bookstore gets the order form tomorrow or next week? This is the age of Amazon; your students may not even go to the campus bookstore). If you have to fill in one of those forms saying how you spend your classroom time, guess, rather than trying to figure out what you really do. Appreciate your students, the ones who try, the ones you can help. Don’t think about the ones who are annoying. Similar advice re colleagues. Go home and do something else that matters: raise your kids, read a book, plant/cook/eat good food, listen to music, learn a language just because.

I admit that it really helps to have married out of academe. When I go home, I can hear about big-corporation work hassles instead of continuing to think about beleaguered-university budget troubles. Nonetheless, I think a lot of anxiety about work is self-inflicted. I am not saying “check out mentally” or “refuse committee work.” It’s more “keep work in its place; think about the big picture.” Doing my job is important to me. But I don’t want to worry about doing my job. And I am not going to do it 24/7.

People’s big pictures vary, and this is why academia is tricky—it is, or can be, like artistry. That line about no one wishing on their deathbed that they’d spent more time on the job—I think artists and novelists may well wish that they’d produced one more painting or novel. If you feel like that about your research, then spending more time on the writing job is a wise use of time. If what you care about is teaching, then maybe you do want to write up the detailed comments for everyone, in hopes that it will make a difference to someone. But do you really need to do the detailed comments AND work on research every day AND knock yourself out planning initiatives that may or may not get funded? I think it’s fine to pull your own weight—but no more—and refuse guilt trips and flattery trips.* What parts of your job matter to you? Do those well enough to meet your own (reasonable) expectations—do enough of the other parts well enough so that you aren’t making other people’s lives difficult—and let go of the sense that you have to do everything perfectly.

 

*Flattery trip: “Oh, you’d be so good at this, we really neeeeeed you.” The answer to that is “We need to give someone else a chance to develop those skills,” if you have already served, or are serving elsewhere.

Maintaining perspective

I’m participating in the TLQ group again. The last two weeks have had suggestions for thinking about maintaining perspective in the face of trouble which, taken together, have prompted me to post my thoughts here rather than in the comments there, because they turned out to be a long preamble to a tale.

Taking care of oneself, and having a home life that is separate from work life, provides space. As JaneB noted, sometimes it’s easier to connect with family (children/spouse) than with one’s own self/ house/ pet/ non-human preoccupation. So pay attention to the people or critters you live with. If you live alone, take care of yourself as you would a friend.

One thing I notice about academics who are very productive is that they don’t seem to entertain doubts about the importance of what they’re doing. They don’t say, “Well, I’m not curing cancer,” or “well, not that many people really care about this.” They think they’re making a difference to the world, and that includes the people who do literary research in earlier periods. Some of them may justify such work by the idea that it makes them, or other people, better teachers, but whatever way they find to think about it, they think their research matters. They think it makes the world a better (more interesting, better-informed, more thoughtful, more enlightened) place.

We’re trained to question everything, including rhetoric and values. But maybe we’re overdoing the questioning. Maybe we need to give ourselves some answers. “My work is important because . . . ” and “Though small, my audience is significant because . . . ” and even just “I love my work and I can get paid for it, so someone thinks it’s significant and I think it’s a good thing to do work I love.”

And indeed, it is a good thing to do work you love. I know there has been a shift in advice for young people, so that it’s now less “Find your passion” and more “Find something you’re decent at and can stand, get really good at that, and see if it becomes your passion, or if you can pursue your passion as a leisure activity.” Even if we give that advice to our students (and heaven knows following your passion to grad school in the humanities is not such a good option these days), why should those of us who are already academics belatedly follow it? Why take on Puritan notions (or are they Romantic?) about suffering and not having fun? Why be a tortured writer (artist, academic) if it’s possible to choose to be a happy one who has fun with writing, who dances with the Muse in the moonlight, who gets to have conversations with famous long-dead writers (artists, whoever)?

So what do you love about your job? I hope there’s something. I love research and writing. I have a lesser but still notable love for teaching so long as I have at least minimally engaged students. I don’t mind committee work so long as I feel it is productive.

What I don’t like: I dislike the climate of anxiety that has clouded LRU for the past few years: less and less money, low enrollments, re-shaping programs, low faculty morale. I don’t like trying to gauge how much I, personally, need to worry.

What I am doing: I am trying very hard not to get sucked into other people’s anxieties. Some of them are very real, especially for those who are single or partnered with other people who work for LRU. Since I am fortunate enough to have “married out,” I think it’s better for me to avoid taking on the anxieties that many of my colleagues feel. I sympathize. I acknowledge that they have real things to worry about. But I, personally, don’t have to worry in the same way they do, so why should I torment myself with their worries? I’m going to do me, and let them do them. This is not saying I have no worries. This is saying I want to assess the things that I need to worry about and not worry about ones that aren’t my individual problem.

I’m also consciously saying, “The work will still be there tomorrow, and now it is time to get some exercise/sleep/relaxation/food—to have a life that is more than work. The students can wait another day or two for their papers. The world will not come to an end if I file that form next week instead of tomorrow.” Along with over-questioning, I think we’re also over-conscientious. Sometimes there are hard deadlines. Other times, we expect too much of ourselves. How much of such expectations comes from our job guidelines, how much from feeling competitive with other colleagues (if you made it through a Ph.D., you are probably fairly competitive, at least about some things), how much from early training in being a good girl?

What I wonder about: can I make people pay rent in my head? That is, if I’m thinking about something that annoys me, can I find a way to make those thoughts productive? Can they spur me to do something differently? Can I learn from people I’m angry at or jealous of?

Finally, I’m reminded of a few bits of advice. Long ago, I had my own copy of Women in Academe: Outsiders in the Sacred Grove. (I gave it to a friend who, a couple of years later, quit a tenure-track job. Hmmm.) I re-read it last year. It’s dated, and yet not nearly so dated as you might expect. The advice given, about focusing on research and networking, is excellent, and I wish I had paid more attention to it when I was in the early years of my career. I was more interested in work-life balance, at the time, when I should have been thinking about work. Anyway, I will paraphrase, since I no longer have the book to hand: what is important is that you get your work done, and make sure that you and your family are fed, rested, and loved. What is not important is that you cook all your own food, clean your own house, or make your kids’ Halloween costumes by hand. Ms Mentor has similar advice: “Be good to yourself. . . . Do not diet—starvation will make you grouchy and boring. Buy frozen foods; cherish the microwave. . . . BE ADEQUATE, NOT PERFECT. Tape that motto to your fridge. . . . Routinize. Simplify.” (Emily Toth, Ms Mentor’s Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia [Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1997], p. 75)

Self-esteem

I got a letter from the president of LRU about football tickets. It started, “As a valuable member of the university, I am inviting you . . . ”

Well, there are two opinions about whether the prez is a valuable member of LRU or not. But at least s/he doesn’t suffer from low-self-esteem brought on by being at a regional school instead of a flagship.