Pseudo-science and Rational Woo

First the disclaimer: I don’t believe in astrology.

However, I recently took a trip down memory lane that has to do with astrology. It started when I was reading an old thread at the Chron fora on which an astrologer was posting in ways that people on the thread seemed to find useful—more about working with symbols and archetypes than with predictions, sort of like reading Tarot cards in terms of what the symbols mean for the person getting the reading rather than as they’re generally interpreted. On a whim, I plugged my birth date and place into one of the sites that will give you a full horoscope, what house all your planets are in, the whole nine yards.

The results surprised me, because they were not what I have believed for the past more than forty years.

See, back when I was in junior high, I was quite “into” astrology. I don’t remember if I believed it, or what sparked my interest. Possibly there was a fad for it among my friends; perhaps one friend was annoying about interpreting everything in terms of sun sign, and I decided to find out more as a defense. I mean, obviously not everyone born under Virgo is going to get run over by an egg truck today. What I do remember is that I got books from the library, and read up on both the principles and the techniques, and then, to the best of my ability, calculated my horoscope with all the planets and houses. This was long before the internet, significantly before the computing power now available meant that inputting date, time, and place could instantly spew out all the details. It was also before my math skills were as developed as they later became.

So there I was, at the age of twelve, struggling with the tables and conversion factors in one of the books I’d checked out, and determining that my rising sign was Leo. I liked this result very well, not least because of my fondness for felines. I’m sure that doing all the work was useful in various ways. That is, on the social front, it no doubt allowed me to participate with authority in junior-high conversations (though I don’t remember this part—I try to forget as much as possible about junior high school). Certainly this was child-led education, in that I found something that interested me, went to the library, did the reading, did the math (to the best of my ability), and wrote up my results in a way that pleased me. If I neglected my school homework to do it, well, tant pis; I always have been one to do more of what interests me than what I have been assigned.

The results of my recent whim show that my rising sign is not Leo, nor is my moon where I believed it to be. So much for my long-ago efforts. Looking at what I’m “supposed” to be like according to my new horoscope, I scoff. Definitely a pseudo-science. But! What are the effects of believing, even for a short time, even only half-consciously, that you have certain characteristics? What effect on my adolescent psychology did it have, to believe (or at least, put about to my credulous friends) that I was self-aware, ambitious, faithful, authoritative, energetic, creative? Those are good things to believe about yourself, wherever you get the ideas. It’s hard, at twelve, to have established much of a personality or track record (or so it seemed to me, at the time: friends who knew me at 8 think I’m pretty much the same person now as then!). I spent a lot of time feeling like I was just not-quite at a lot of things I wanted to be better at, so it was helpful to have a horoscope assuring me that I was going to make it, eventually.

So now I wish I had disregarded all the tables and details of my actual birth and just cast for myself the best possible horoscope, the perfect forecast of the person I most hoped to become, and believed in that until I had a track record to believe in. This is what I call Rational Woo: “Sometimes in order to get where your rational self wants to be, you need a little woo-woo. Of course you know the odds against you: will your novel even find a publisher, let alone become a best-seller that will let you move to New Mexico and write full-time? Ha ha. Will your academic book really change the face of the discipline? Uh-huh. Will your dissertation even get you a job? Um . . . .

But an unwritten novel is guaranteed not to be published; the unwritten academic tome doesn’t stand a chance of changing anything; the unfinished dissertation will most certainly not get you the job that requires dissertation in hand. You can’t ensure your own success, that is true. But you can most certainly ensure failure. So you have to at least meet the bar of finishing whatever it is.

And so it’s time for the woo-woo that will let you shut off the voices and the doubts and get on with it. . . . It’s your fantasy life: let it be rich, productive, and comforting. Whatever keeps you doing the work, moving the project forward every day, taking baby steps if that’s what you’re able to do.” So I said seven years ago.

Right now, I want a horoscope that tells me I am a hard worker who sometimes needs significant down-time to let thinking happen in the background; that I can come roaring back from this slow period to knock out a lot of good work quickly; that my trip to visit family is going to go smoothly and be a refreshing change; that the next two months of this summer are going to be excellent for me in many ways, so long as I just keep truckin’.

What a fool believes? Whatever. If I say I have Leo rising, then I have a nice protective lion leaning over my shoulder to help me out, okay? Cat is my co-pilot! I can wake up from a nap and instantly nab a mouse! Cats never doubt themselves. They are perfect just the way they are. So I’m sticking with Leo as my horoscope-totem-whatever.

Calm

It will be so much quicker to just do some of the things I have to do than to start having feelings about them (ugh, don’t want to, why can’t someone else on this committee do more, why didn’t I do this last week/last month, why am I so slow, guilt, too many things, gah). So I’m declaring this morning a no-feelings zone.

Yesterday I saw a colleague who has been dealing with a perfect storm of deadlines for months now. She is usually a fairly calm person but has been performing stress lately, including complaining about having spent the whole of spring break working. I said I’d worked throughout it as well but also had spent a lot of time at the gym, reading, etc. She asked if I had deadlines to meet and I said oh yes, they whooshed by. She said she was losing sleep over hers: “I’m neurotic that way.” I laughed and said, “Well, I’m irresponsible that way.” She thought we should be combined into one person.

I don’t agree. I’d rather be me. She has accomplished more than I have, in less time, it’s true, and I do have a little envy of that. But I’m being responsible to my health, and if I don’t do that, I won’t be able to work at all. So I have a lot of days when I don’t get that much done (and waste time and energy having feelings about that “failure”), but I hit the gym, and go to bed early (or as soon as I can), and try to set myself up for a better day tomorrow.

And this is tomorrow, so let’s see what I can get done before the next round of House Stuff and the afternoon gym visit.

Fantasy schedules

I don’t remember the chain of links that got to me to these posts about working out a template for when you will address which tasks. Of course I love reading this kind of thing; it’s great procrastination fodder, and I do try to work out some such schedule for myself. It’s just that I’d like to see a schedule from someone whose life bears some vague resemblance to mine, instead of to what Pacheco admits is a very privileged position (and what to me sounds like total science fiction): a teaching load of 1-1-0, low service commitments, and five research assistants.

I have a similar reaction to someone who only teaches on Wednesday, and has office hours on Thursday.

Someone who admits to “lost hours” between classes and that preparing for class can take four hours sounds more recognizable.

None of these people spends seven hours a week commuting, or else they’re working during their commute. They also claim to be able to just shift one sort of task to another slot if they really have to schedule something else during a slot intended for work.

It would be pretty to think so. Usually I have a limited number of “good” hours to work with on a particular day, and if my awake-and-energetic time goes to something like wrangling contractors or a doctor’s appointment, I’m not going to do quality work later in the day.

Why, yes, I AM cranky because the whole morning went to House Stuff. What was your first clue?

Days 8 and 9, the end of break

In no particular order, after my mainly-frittered Saturday morning, I baked cookies, walked four miles, wrote the letter (from the secondary set of three things), put in 20 minutes or so looking for quotations for my next conference paper, cooked, did two loads of laundry, did more house-tidying, graded a set of papers, put in 45 minutes on the treadmill and did some weight-training, and re-stained the front porch. There was a night of sleep in there somewhere!

If you recall, I had two sets of Three Things to work on during the break: translation, grading, house were the Big Three, and then there were the Other Three: letter, assignment, taxes. How did I do? Well, I finished revising the introduction to the translation, but did not get on to the style review. I graded all of the papers for the smaller class, and 1/3 of the papers for the larger class. The house is re-listed but I still have a fair bit of tidying up to do before it is view-able, and I think I am going to wind up shoving lots of things into boxes that can be hidden away quickly, rather than carefully and thoughtfully organizing things so that I can find them again later instead of cursing my former self for not being better organized. I dealt with the letter and the assignments (and as of this afternoon, I have only one more assignment plus an exam to write for the rest of the semester).

That’s pretty good. I’d love to have done all the grading and got the house really squared away, but I made good progress on all of the Big Three, and did two out of three of the Other Three. I also did a lot of crosswords, fun reading, and watching of cycling. I went to the gym or walked outside every single day, and my cardiovascular fitness is noticeably improved. I even managed a little bit of garden clean-up on a warm day, and I made that pie.

Taxes. Ugh. Must get on that.

And some things are already boomeranging: further editing needs to happen to both the letter and the introduction before they go to their intended recipients (but a big thank you, seriously, to my collaborators on both projects for getting back to me quickly and with useful suggestions). So this week’s Things look a lot like last week’s Things. It’s March: why is my life doing a Groundhog’s Day Week?

Day 3, and some things I forgot

Reporting with a day’s delay is making me feeling like I have more time than I do; but I stay off screens in the evening (mostly), so here we are.

Things I forgot to mention: the day before break, a colleague who is on a scholarship committee told me that I “write a good recommendation letter.”

On day one, I had e-mail or text exchanges with three different friends.

On day two, I remembered in the nick of time that Paris-Nice was starting, so Sir John had time to tell the DVR to record the whole thing. We’ll watch it a day or so behind, so I’m trying to avoid cycling news. It’s not going to be the same without Paul Sherwen.

Day three: not fabulous as to productivity, but very different from my usual term-time Monday (drive, meeting, classes, meeting, drive), so I’ll take it. The painter came to do a small repair and was done by 11. Our real estate agent visited briefly. I registered for K’zoo and booked a hotel there, wrote a note to Lady Maud, read and took notes on three essays from a collected volume relevant to the translation, set up a comments template for one set of student papers, walked four miles and consulted another relevant volume, did a little cooking, finished re-reading Tremontaine (season one). I did not drive and I did no administrivia. I went to bed a bit late, after eleven, but slept pretty well and got up at 7:30. I’ll need to work on shifting bedtime back an hour or two.

Six days to go, counting today. Long lists of things to do. Think how good it will feel to have finished them.

The day before spring break

That is, yesterday.

Far too much talking to people: colleagues, students, mentoring of colleagues junior to me, meetings, blah blah. Came home feeling that I Cannot People Any Longer.

Students. Both my classes had papers due last night. I required the lower-division class to have conferences with me: bring a rough draft, a thesis statement, or your notes, I said. The assignment even offered sample thesis statements that they could use without altering, so that the essay would be plug-and-chug (an exercise in developing topic sentences and providing support). Well. One student signed up, then blew off the conference completely, did not respond to e-mail. One let me know he couldn’t make his appointment. One, a junior, actually brought a very decent rough draft. All the others—ten or so—came in with various degrees of “I don’t know what I’m going to write about.” People. On Wednesday, you still had two days, so okay, sort of. On Friday, when your paper is due in 12 hours, don’t you think you could at least look at the assignment sheet while you’re in the hallway and pick a thesis statement?

In contrast, three of the upper-division class came in voluntarily. One even came twice, with different versions of her paper, and a most admirable ability to de-couple writing from ego. She’ll go far. That whole class is a lovely group of people and I enjoy them so much.

All week, I’ve been looking forward to the break and thinking about Dr Medusa’s description of the Spring Break Professor House: “Do they still have the MTV Spring Break beach house or party house or whatever? If MTV were to do a Spring Break professor house, there would be a lone dishevelled woman in strange outfits (which I, like many of my comrades, tend to wear when I write), books and papers everywhere, a bored chihuahua, maybe something like The Maltese Falcon on the television, and several bottles of red wine in various states of fullness–one on the desk, one by the bedside, one by the table. Every once in a while in the MTV Spring Break Garret, the dishevelled prof would rouse herself from the laptop, put some Led Zeppelin or Violent Femmes on the iPod and dance wildly. Then it would be back to the writing.” This sounds great to me. Substitute cats for chihuahua and sherry for the red wine, and I’m there.

I just have to do Three Things in the next week: translation, grading, house. That’s it. Three things.

Um, except then I remembered another Three Things: letter, assignment, taxes. Dammit. So maybe this morning I will try to knock off at least a couple of those, and say that I’m still on the Day Before Break, until maybe noon, and then I can start my Spring Break Professor House Party with Three Things.

More brilliance from the past

In my remembrance of things past via visits to defunct (or merely suspended? like the Seven Sleepers, perhaps the right impetus will awaken some bloggers) blogs, I have been relieved when some writers actually quote large chunks of text from other webpages, rather than just linking. Links, sadly, break. Thus, having found a clear exposition of Z’s amazing and admirable process in comments at Undine’s, I’m copying and pasting here. I’m not this hardcore, but I agree about the need to think, and that writing before you have thought is “just stewing.” That is, sometimes I write to help myself think, but I have to be very clear that that is what I am doing, and not have any expectation that any of those words will be good, keeper words.

The rest of this post is Z, not me:

*

People say just write, write, write and this will make you see what you are doing. Through the so called process of writing you will figure out what you mean, they allege. I think that is completely crazy, at least for my case … writing is just stewing and will only ruin your thought process unless you have already decided what you are doing. Until such time as your first line comes to you unannounced, and you know what the content of your last paragraph is going to be, you are much better off just meditating as far as I am concerned.

If I do that, all I come up with are a whole lot of great first pages. I could do that for months and even years – and HAVE done it for that long sometimes – and never finish a single piece.

*

My most classic example of this, to which I have alluded before:

When I was in college and graduate school I had a typewriter, not a computer. (In college and through my Ph.D. exam it was a manual one; for my dissertation I bought a self-correcting one by Olympia.) For all papers I kept handwritten notes and would then write directly on the typewriter, no revisions. My dissertation director couldn’t believe my dissertation draft, she said it read like a book, how could this be, but she would have just DIED had she known I had composed it directly like that. She had been yelling at me because I had said I was only writing one page a day, with Sundays off, and would write the whole thing that way in a year. She nearly fainted when this turned out to be true.

Of course in order to be able to do that I had to sit around and think about it for several months first. It took seven months to come up with a dissertation prospectus. Then it took ten months to think. Then it took nine months to write, and four months to have the committee read it and then for me to enter it into my very first computer and print it out on acid free paper. This adds up to 30 months during which I also moved to a new country and took a full load of graduate courses in a new subfield, in a language I was not (initially) very proficient in.]

*

This methodology is the only one which works for me, and/but I warn everyone that even it only works if one is actually working on one’s ideas (not stewing, not rushing, not worrying, but WORKING) in a calm, organized, but *concentrated* way in the meantime. That is what will, in good time, make a first line come into one’s head … and one knows it is the RIGHT first line because with it comes the content of the last paragraph.

Peri-writing

I’ve lamented nostalgically about the Lost Age of Blogging before, and mentioned that I spend a certain amount of time trawling archives of both defunct and on-going blogs. Hey, I spend most of my professional life living in the far-distant past, somewhere between the twelfth and the fifteenth century; spending my leisure 10-15 years back puts me in the current century!

Peri-writing is a great term from the incomparable Undine. I disagree strenuously with the commenter who said it is the enemy of writing. No. It is research. It is the humanities equivalent of running experiments, of putting in lab time, seeing what you come up with. Writing is the writing up of results, and if you do that first, you’re in danger of cherry-picking your evidence and reporting false results. Writing just to write, even just to see where your “holes” are, is a great way to waste time and dig yourself into a huge pile of words you’ll just have to trash. Much better to make notes, look up things you should read, and then at some later point think about those things: can you get by with reading reviews of books, or chapters, or skimming the TOC and index plus some key passages? Are you better off reading the popular overview and then judiciously extracting the original research from the cited works? I agree that the peri-writing stage can be frustrating, but it is necessary, it is work, and we should not be sending the message that there’s some way to skip it. Thinking is the important part, and there’s really no way (that I know of) to shorten that process.

Blogroll

I have finally created one.

It’s an alphabetized jumble, without categories for academics, ex-pats, writers, gardeners, readers, travelers, or friends-of-blogfriends, and some of the blogs haven’t been updated for awhile. Nonetheless, I recommend their archives and continue to hope that their authors will return to regular blogging, or at least give annual updates, or something. As a somewhat irregular blogger myself, I’m in no position to criticize!

Things I have done on a snow day

  • Slept till 8:00.
  • De-iced the bird feeders.
  • Put up an online assignment and dealt with some other online stuff for classes.
  • Added nearly 1000 words to the research document I am working on. Not new words. Old words whose time has come.
  • Edited those words and some others.
  • Graded a complete set of very short papers that didn’t need a lot of attention.
  • Posted at TLQ.
  • Finished and submitted a set of responses for program review.
  • Skulked indoors all day, apart from de-icing the bird feeders, attempting to de-ice some bushes, and taking a picture of damage to the house. I hear exercise is a good thing . . .
  • Sent the picture to our handyman to see if it’s something he can fix.
  • Made a Christmas wish list, mostly books.

Things I expect to do now:

  • Cook dinner.
  • Read a book. I have been reading some extremely fluffy cozy mysteries by Rhys Bowen. The “Royal Spyness” series is like the Mitfords on helium, with a dash of Peter Wimsey doing his silly-ass routine.
  • Stretch.