Another look back

Jon Jarrett just posted his report on K’zoo 2017, as part of an on-going effort to catch up on posts about research-related events in his life, and so I thought to look back at my experiences at the same conference. Any research-oriented notes on papers are in the conference program (yes, the paper version, you’re surely not surprised that I’m old-school), which is of course packed away somewhere, so the following extracts are from my personal journal, in which I was thinking about scheduling and how I was feeling, physically (generally, tired: I don’t sleep well in strange places).

I got to K’zoo about 7:00, collected my registration packet without seeing anyone I knew, and checked into the hotel. This morning I e-mailed presenters in the sessions I’m chairing to ask if they have any recent accomplishments they’d like me to mention. I’ve picked out sessions for today; there’s a —– Society Board meeting; I’ll have some time in which to come back to the hotel, eat, shower, change into fancier clothing for the Wheeler reception.

Thursday night’s reception was, as usual, loud. Val Garver received the Wheeler Award, and Lorraine Stock was giving money to the fund in honor of Alice Colby-Hall, who was there to be honored.

[Another morning] I chaired a session that went very well, though AV problems meant we started a few minutes late. The afternoon session also went well; my grad student got no questions on her paper, but I told her I’m the same way: we put together tightly constructed, well-argued and thoroughly documented papers, and no one can see what they might add, so they focus on the papers with more loose ends. At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I also had the —–Society general meeting and reception, followed closely by a Frenches of Fordham reception, and later in the evening, the Early Book Society meeting.

I think I would enjoy receptions more if I could drink like other academics. It’s odd being stone-cold sober when everyone else is getting tipsy and loud. It’s not that I feel I need to drink to have a good time; rather, alcohol takes the edge off discomfort at being in loud, crowded spaces, and makes it easier to deal with other people at the end of a long day. But it makes me feel too ill.

Last night I slept for 3–4 hours, tossed around for awhile, finally got up at 5:30 and ate something, then went back to bed for another couple of hours. I skipped today’s morning session; there were several things I could have gone to, nothing that I felt was a can’t-miss, I was awake for 2–3 hours in the middle of the night, and I wanted to visit the book exhibit. But a book I was considering got away. Oh well. I guess I didn’t want it enough.

As Jon said, “I was there and I learnt things,” though I think he had more fun than I did. I did have some meals with friends, and it was nice to catch up with people, but 2017 wasn’t one of my really energizing Zoo trips.

Online or not?

We don’t know, of course, what we’ll be doing about classes in the fall. If we’re all online, then yes, I’m spending the summer on training to teach online and converting my classes accordingly. In the meantime, we’ve been asked to consider putting one or more of our classes online, on the theory that at least some students will prefer to take classes online, due to health, care-taking, or whatever else they have going on.

I’m trying to decide. Do it now, when I’d get brownie points for stepping up and some understanding for early-adopter glitches? Or wait and see? I already have 21 students enrolled in my 2-day-per-week undergrad course, which would be a nice number for the hybrid course I’m sort of hoping for, meeting half of them one day, the other half on the other, and having the at-home half doing online stuff or “attending” via webcam. I miss being in the classroom, and even if I have to be prepared to go online if/when there’s another outbreak, or to teach a hybrid class, I really want to spend some actual physical time with my students.

I guess that’s my answer, now that I write it out. Who among my readers is thinking out similar questions, and what are you thinking?

Appearing organized

If you want to acquire a reputation for being organized, here are my two top tips:

1. Answer e-mail promptly.*

2. Do not perform stress.**

That’s it! Go forth and appear in control.



* Answers can be “Yes, thank you for thinking of me,” “Maybe, please tell me more,” “No, I can’t do that now, but I can get to it at X time,” “No, I can’t do that, but here’s someone you could ask.” The key is to be prompt, even if you’re saying no, rather than to hide out hoping people think you’re doing something more important than checking your e-mail.

**You can be a total stress monkey in your head as long as your outward demeanor is “Everything’s fine.” I started acting like everything was fine a long time ago, when I realized that I got very stressed being around people whose outward narrative is “OMG there’s so much to do I have deadlines no time to exercise or eat properly the world is going to hell in a handbasket and I am so important only I can do this stuff OMG.” Things get done, eventually. Only once have I reached the end of the semester without all the grading being accomplished, and even then, it was okay.*** Nobody else really needs to know the number of times I have done things at the last minute, or dropped a ball or several, or faked my way through a meeting or a class (I read fast, and there’s always think-pair-share exercises plus “That’s an interesting observation, do tell us more”). I’m more effective when I exercise, eat good food, try to get a reasonable amount of rest, and don’t try to run on caffeine and sugar.

***That was the semester when I had to spend two weeks with my parents when my father had emergency surgery and my mother was suffering from Parkinson’s-related dementia. I kept everybody informed, filled out manual change-of-grade forms, and the world kept turning. Sir John and some trusted friends got an earful, but nobody at work needed to know the details of how completely awful those weeks were.

Vanity is underrated

It’s a social good. Really.

Last week, on a Zoom call with Lady Maud, I thought I looked pale and shiny. Further, the scarf I had selected was too busy a print to show up well on screen. These observations did not detract from my enjoyment of our conversation, particularly since she was ensconced on her deck under a very artistic wisteria vine, but I did take them to heart.

So when I had a committee meeting scheduled yesterday, I wore powder, blusher, lipstick, and eye makeup, and chose a plain bright shirt, no scarf, no fuss around the neckline. If people are going to have to look at me for some extended period, the view should be pleasant, especially when they are not my close friends and thus love me no matter what I look like. I also made sure my camera was around eye level.

When the call was over and Sir John came up to ask me something, he did a double-take. “Are you wearing makeup?” I said yes, and explained.

Then I said, “A lot of people on the call had their video turned off, so who knows what they were doing. But of those I could see, there was a clear divide between people who were wearing scruffy clothes and were looking down into their laptops so you could see up their noses, and those who had dressed the way they usually would for work and had their cameras at an angle that didn’t make me feel like an ENT doc. Care to guess who was in these groups?”

“The scruffy ones were the guys,” Sir John said, without pausing to think.

Reader, I married him.

Go away/come here

I could happily spend most of the day e-mailing with my RL friends, or reading updates from my blog-friends, just the little details of people’s lives, families, pets, gardens, reading, watching, cooking, exercise routines, favorite cocktails. Or even answering queries from my students!

But I think I need to unsubscribe from e-mail lists of various Fancy Libraries. I used to enjoy getting a once-a-month newsletter from them, which showed pictures of places and exhibits I haven’t seen in years, updated me about who their new fellows are, reminded me of grants I might apply for, that sort of thing. Now I’m getting way too many e-mails about Digital Collections and Online This And That, and I don’t care. I am not going to do anything with their online whatevers.

Even worse are the e-mails from LRU’s Online Teaching Technology people, or whatever they’re calling themselves. You can do this! Sign up for a workshop! You can consult with someone who has been teaching online for years, either by phone, text chat, or video chat! Here’s a reminder of the web page that we’re constantly updating! Blah, blah, blah!!!!Elebenty-blah!!! I’m not sure that I can unsubscribe from these, but maybe I can filter them straight to junk mail.

You know what I’m doing? Reading actual real books. So are my students. We’re reading, thinking, and writing. It’s going just fine.* I do not need or want support from LRU for fancy bells and whistles, nor do I want to hear from the fancy libraries about digitized documents that would be completely illegible to my undergrads.

But I’d happily hear from my friends every day.

*I teach English. YMMV: in other fields, you may need a lot more tech than I do.

Private medievalist

With the cancellation of the Medieval Congress at Leeds, I’m 0 for 3 on the conferences I hoped to attend this year.

First-world problems, yes. I hope all my posts to do with the virus* remain of this type, I truly do. I’m mainly disappointed that I don’t get to see my friends, or travel in the UK. Sir John was going to come this year. We were going to climb around old castles together, and have a swell time. I’m sure we’ll have a swell time at home, too, but we’d been looking forward to this trip for awhile. I suppose the castles will still be there next year. In the meantime, I’m shut in the house with my favorite person and three cats, so no complaints there, and e-mail, Skype, and the phone still work for getting in touch with people. For me, conferences are about social events and travel. Even in this first-world situation, it’s not as if I’m a junior person who was counting on conferences to help make significant progress on a book. And I’m sure not the hospitality industry losing all their bookings.

Where has the last week gone? Mainly checking CNN’s live updates, blowing my nose, coughing, writing up assignments for my students and sending reassuring e-mails, cleaning, trying to nap, advising Sir John about online shopping: local grocery stores are delivering, but there’s a lot of “we’re out of this, what about X substitute?” that we have to negotiate.

As the introvert’s introvert, I actually am looking forward to settling down to reading and working on my own schedule, without commuting. The only reason I’m not already doing this is that I’m ill with something, and whether it’s just a cold or Something Else, I don’t want to aggravate it. This is not the time to Carry On, and get sicker. So I rest a lot, though sleep is iffy because of symptoms (this is totally normal for me with a cold), and say “oh swyve it” to a lot of things, and figure that the obsessive news-checking is part of trying to take in the scale of the crisis. I keep wondering how I could have been in denial for so long, but I’ve seen posts from doctors admitting they were, too, so it’s not just me.

I worry about my dad in his assisted-living facility, but there is nothing I can do about that. Apply Stoic principles, and accept whatever happens. I can’t bring myself to get in touch with my brothers. My Brother Less Reasonable at least has a grasp of statistics and scientific principles, but he is also a Negative Nicholas and I don’t want to hear his version of how bad everything is going to get, even if he’s right. My Brother More Reasonable** will undoubtedly have some kind of crackpot theory that might be amusing if I could keep sufficiently detached to just say to myself, “Wow, yeah, there he goes again,” but I’m not sure I could do that. So I just don’t. They haven’t called or e-mailed me, either, so we’re even, I guess.

* “the virus” used to be HIV. It seems so weird to have it be something else, and something whose generic (“the coronavirus”) is something I associate with shelter cats. A few weeks ago, I was joking with Sir John that our cats had done their best to ensure that we’d have some antibodies when COVID-19 hit the States: bats, cats, one letter difference. Right? Um.

** The More and Less Reasonable descriptors refer only to how easy I find it to negotiate my father’s care with them, not to their belief systems or ways of interacting with the world.


The closures and cancellations keep coming. My dentist, my gym, the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo.

The last makes it even stupider that I stayed up so late, last week, reading the program and thinking about what sessions to go to. But I suspect that at some level I understood that this might happen, and was clinging to normality for a little bit longer. Queen of Denial! This was not the year to have been so efficient about registering and booking a hotel. Sometimes procrastination is not a bad thing!

I feel more cast adrift than I did yesterday, even though in practical terms, little has changed. I’m still staying home for 2-3 weeks, no matter what; I’m not on the K’zoo program this year, so I already didn’t need to write a paper, was just going to go to see friends and attend whatever struck my fancy. Maybe by mid-May I’ll be able to take some other sort of vacation.

But the gym was a near-daily anchor in my life, and I liked to think of it being there whether I was in it or not. The conference is a yearly anchor; I’ve been there every year since I was in grad school, over 30 years now. It’s what I do, in May. It gives me a punch of research-energy going into the summer. It’s very strange to have gone in less than a week from having two conferences on the horizon to none. And, yes, first-world problems, etc., keeping the vulnerable safe, I know. But if you’re reading this, you’re quite likely an academic of some stripe and know what I mean, or can imagine, even if your conference is at a different time of year.

Academic fantasies

  1. Journal editors will learn that when they ask me to add historical context and maybe some discussion of (more) manuscripts, they will get that IN SPADES and will just publish what I send them in the first place without quibbling.
  2. Journal editors will learn that when they ask me to add historical context and maybe some discussion of (more) manuscripts, they will get that IN SPADES and will start asking me at conferences what I’m working on now and if I’ll just send them a rough 15 pages or so they’ll tell me what to add so I can go in the right direction from an early stage.
  3. I will actually figure out by myself how to structure an essay so that it has the right historical context from the beginning instead of making essay-writing a years-long, multiple-draft process with two or three or more submissions before I’m finally done.

At any rate, I have now re-submitted the last chunk of the MMP, which was the first chunk that I started writing, long ago, and I think the second to be accepted (pending revisions). I have an automated e-mail to prove it is in the system. All that slow chipping away finally did the job. I hope. It’s about 40% longer than it was when I last submitted it. When I re-read the new introduction I wondered if my thesis was clear enough, but if the editors ask for clarification I am just going to add the dreaded words “In this paper I shall argue that” and other clumsy signposting because I don’t think I can stand to re-work this piece again.

During my absence from this blog I have also answered the copy-editor’s queries about the Huge Honking Translation (one-week turn-around on a MS of over 350 pages), and graded a set of papers.

I want to take the rest of the day off but I have more grading to do and a lot of work admin and Life Stuff to try to catch up with. I think I will take a break before tackling all that, to get outside (or, depending on the temperature and wind chill, go to the gym) and try to enjoy the feeling of being done with something.


St Thomas Becket

Time flies; I thought I’d done a Becket day last year, or maybe the year before, but it was 2015. My reasons for liking Becket have not changed.

In this morning’s work (10th consecutive day), I’ve read parts of a book I should have read a decade ago, a brilliant book whose author is now a professor at Oxford. It’s making me want to go in the garden and eat worms.

There should be plenty; it rained overnight.

Comparisons are odious. When I was young, I didn’t have a single-minded focus on medieval studies, nor an educational system that forced me to focus early. I’m not so much a late bloomer as a slow bloomer. Maybe this is because I keep getting distracted by new, shiny projects, some of which get done before the old ones, some of which take their places in the shifting relays of things I work on in sequence. Eventually I finish, and the ideas are (I hope) richer for their long gestation and cross-influences.

Will no one rid me of this turbulent desire to have been different? I can only be who I am. It’s way too late to be anything else.

Productivity advice

Do the thing you really want to do.

I decided that I will go to a conference that I love but whose timing is terrible, and started working not on the paper I thought I could easily put together but on the one that I really want to do.

Once I started doing that, I also graded an entire set of papers over two days, and finished taking notes on an ILL book that would not renew, adding about 1500 words to my annotated bibliography. Would I rather be doing “real writing”? Well, yes, but it is worthwhile to have thorough notes on ILL books, and it keeps me in touch with the project, not to mention allowing me to return that book so that I’m not blocked from further ILL requests, so win-win-win.

Having been wildly productive in the past six hours, now I am going to go work in the garden, then go for a walk to un-kink my back (inevitably kinked after significant garden time), cook, and watch something on TV with Sir John. We are spoiled for choice right now: old cycling, new Durrells, or new-ish Discovery episodes. Such an exciting life I lead.

Actually, there was a bit of excitement earlier this week: I had a tiny dinner party! Mid-week! A friend was in the area and suggested dinner, and I countered with an invitation to dinner chez Hull. It was lovely. It made me feel so . . . sophisticated? Leisured? Socially active? Like my memories of Lady Maud’s father, who often hosted guests (fascinating, varied, intellectual, artistic) to dinner at his family table, and not just on weekends. Like I was living the life I meant to have, instead of the one I wound up with!

It also helps that I’ve two nights of entirely adequate sleep in a row. What a difference that makes. Long may it continue.