After the Zoo

The Kalamazoo* experience varies, from year to year. Sometimes I have to take piles of grading along and retreat to my hotel room to grade. Other years I’m all done. Once (I think only once) I took piles of books and completed my paper just before I had to give it. Sometimes I get all energized to do research but come home to piles of grading before I can get back to writing, and sometimes I ought to be energized but am so worn out from the conference that it takes a week to recover.

I never manage to write about the conference during it. Afterwards, it seems like the proper/expected version goes “I heard inspiring papers, made new connections for an innovative collaboration, and now I’m going to do fantastic things with my summer.” Or maybe, “I heard fantastic papers, made inspiring connections, and now I’m going to do innovative things with my summer.” Pick your adjectives.

This year my adjective was “tired.” I didn’t sleep well, I spent lots of time rushing around, I pretended to have a better time than I was having (because I didn’t want to be a downer, and really I have nothing to complain about, except being tired and having too many things going on). Bardiac introduced herself and we had a nice chat. I did hear good papers, though I wish I’d been in a better headspace to concentrate on them and think about their significance. I had dinner with what are now the usual suspects on Saturday, and that was delightful. Rather than meeting new people, I mostly re-connected with old friends. I do not need any new projects, innovative or not; I need to finish some of my old ones. I bought 11 books, a fairly modest number, and left the conference cross because a paper I thought ought to have cited my work, didn’t. (It’s a conference paper; one doesn’t include all the footnotes in oral presentations.)

Once I got home, I slept straight through the night (which for me is a minor miracle) and got up at dawn to file grades. Then I started taking notes on something I have to read for the book project that I have been neglecting, and produced 800 words. Being cross may be a better spur to work than more exalted forms of inspiration.

My plan for the next few weeks is to put in one hour of research time per day, and after that hour, focus on Life Stuff, most especially packing, repairing, and doing whatever we need to do to sell this house. So it is not a good sign that I am still at my desk at this late-morning hour. I’d rather be here, I’d rather focus on the work, but in the long run, the work will be better served by a living situation that doesn’t need so much attention. I suppose that’s innovative, in its way.

 

*International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University.

A fictional dilemma

A friend of mine is considering an opportunity that comes with a catch.

The good news: a course release for work she would enjoy. The bad news: working with someone she does not like. And I don’t mean “can preserve professional decorum though would not invite this person to a party.” I mean “would like to smack this creep and was thrilled when he left the department.”

Not to put too fine a point on it. (She might be more tactful if she were writing this post herself, but I’ve heard what she really thinks, and that’s pretty much it.)

The position is an assistant editorship for an academic journal, with a strong possibility of advancing to editor in due course (probably not too long a course); the current editor is someone my friend gets on with, but the book review editor is . . . not. But he is a good friend of the editor.

Historiann, for one, is emphatic about the drawbacks of being an editor. See also Liz’s comment in another thread related to editing. My friend has edited a couple of proceedings volumes, so she has some (dim?) idea of what is involved; she also likes the idea of doing academic work that serves scholars rather than students. She is good at reviewing and copy-editing and has ideas about where she would like to take the journal, should she wind up as editor. I think the course release is a large carrot for her.

If she survives to be editor, she could presumably pick a new book review editor. That doesn’t mean the old one would go gracefully, or that she wouldn’t have to do a lot of teeth-gritting in the meantime. She points out that if everyone reasonable refuses to work with these Old Doods, only Young Doods will be in the running for the editorship, and that it would be a good thing if a reasonable, not-ancient feminist managed to take over this journal and use it as a way to nurture young (and not-so-young) scholars, particularly those of a feminist stripe. Why leave it to the Doods?

I think life is too short to deal with jerks. I suggested she could make it a condition that the book review editor has to go, but she suspects that if she did, the Doods would take the journal to another school altogether, whereas her department would like to keep it.

So . . . what do my readers think?

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.