Spreadsheets for Humanities research

For awhile now, I’ve intended to blog on this topic, since Undine expressed interest. I have a few tabs open with related posts, and I want to close them, and I’m feeling a Friday-afternoon slump, so let’s do this.

I originally started working with spreadsheets because the tables I’d created in WordPerfect were so long and complicated that they had become unstable. I mentioned that here. From what I said in that post about a concordance and Topic A in Author Z, I think this was an earlier stage of research on what is now my book-in-progress. This project began as a conference paper. A journal editor who attended my session asked me to expand and submit the paper to their journal. When I started expanding, the danged thing grew, and grew, and grew some more. It’s still growing. I am still adding to the spreadsheet, as I realize that more and more words have connections to Topic A.

Profacero asked, around the same time, about using spreadsheets and calculators and bibliography managers. I don’t need spreadsheets for numbers. For me, they’re a useful way of tabulating information in a way I can get at easily.

I had another spreadsheet for part of the MMP, the Macedonian Marginalia Project. It had a long list of the marginalia, including columns for manuscript folio, edition page, text by which the marginalia appeared, and I forget what else, but there was more.

Another book-related spreadsheet tracks family relationships for multiple generations. I could get specialized family-tree software, but that’s not exactly what I want. I need to comment on what people were doing, and marriages they thought about negotiating but didn’t go through with, and similar matters. I like having different columns in which I can put this kind of information. Excel appears to be a very robust program. I can fill up cells with text, not numbers, and it just chugs along, keeping things organized.

I have a spreadsheet that I’m trying to use to organize the book itself, section by section, including primary and secondary quotations, historical analogues, and various other things that I want to use to support my main points. That isn’t going as well, TBH, because I do a lot of my thinking by writing, and then I have to take the time to move points from a written document into the spreadsheet, and it all seems stupidly fiddly: until the moment when I’m struggling with what goes where and I wish that I had moved things into the spreadsheet so that I could see things spread out clearly instead of having to pull them out of a long wall of text.

Then there’s the spreadsheet with all my scholarly books in it, which I wrote about here.

There might be some others, but those are the main ones that occur to me. Questions welcome!

Where the day went

Before I started work, I fed the cats, did yoga, ate breakfast, watered and fertilized the tomatoes, watered the African violets, brushed the cats’ teeth.

Checked e-mail and answered a couple of messages. Declined an “opportunity” that would interfere with time I want to use either to do research or to prep my grad class, though technically I’m “free” at that time.

Wrote 567 words.

Commented on all the undergrads’ discussion board posts. Assigned points to both classes’ posts. Discovered that I have loaded to Blackboard all but one assignment for each class (I thought I was missing more than that for one class, so this made me happy). Made notes toward the two assignments I still have to write up in detail.

Attended a committee meeting online. Volunteered for a subcommittee.

When the meeting ended early, I used the “found time” to swing by the grocery store (half an hour) and move some boxes around in the garage, then started unpacking one box of books (another half hour). ILL’d a book I need, only to have the request cancelled because the book is already checked out of one of the libraries that has it; another is a non-circulating library; the third claims to have it but in fact hasn’t ordered it yet. Thppppbtt.

Dead language group meeting, online.

Talked to Sir John while completing the unpacking of that box of books. Sorted out a stack of books to give away. I’m pretty sure that box of books never got unpacked in the last house, so it was easy to distinguish between the books I was glad to see again and those that made me wonder where and why I got them in the first place.

Checked in online with my dissertating students.

Ate dinner. Went for a walk. Unpacked a new batch of masks from Etsy that arrived in today’s mail.

While watching the Vuelta, answered more e-mail and started reviewing an article I’m teaching tomorrow.

Another five-minute post

I’m home again, which means exchanging a view of blue salt water for a sea of green grass and green trees. This should not be anything to complain about, but I do miss salt water here in the middle of the country. If classes move online again, I may just go to my brother’s and teach from there (this does not seem fair to Sir John, so I might not be able to pull it off).

I absolutely must work on syllabuses and class plans. I feel very very disinclined to do this, although in response to a query from a colleague I looked at a syllabus & course site from last spring and experienced warm feelings toward those students, which helps a bit. I wish I could be sure we’d be in the classroom for the whole semester! It’s partly the uncertainty that is off-putting: I want to plan the course once, not work out a whole lot of contingency plans.

I have always worked at home a great deal. When I was a student, I found it difficult to concentrate in the library (other people, so many books), and the shared TA office was used mainly for office hours, and sometimes for computer work, but we had to schedule time on the computer. Later I got my own computer. In my final year of grad school, I was on fellowship and could work at home every day if I wanted to, but I usually went to campus at least to swim and/or spend time in the library, because I got cabin fever spending all day every day in my studio apartment. Once I had a job, I was delighted to have an office of my own. I still did research at home, mostly, but loved having an office in which to do class prep. Over the years, I wound up doing more and more “real work” at home on non-campus days, because having a long commute meant that campus days filled up with teaching, meetings, library trips, all the things that required a physical presence on campus. But after last year, I’m really tired of living in the office, and want to go back to campus, so that working at home in my study feels, again, like a privilege rather than a requirement.

Eight minutes. Publishing now.

Things I did today

Drank black tea as well as green.

Reviewed and commented on a graduate student’s outline.

Looked over an undergraduate paper draft that changed very little since the last version.

Grappled with late classical Latin.

Struggled with ugly medieval Latin.

Read about 20 pages of a Middle English text.

E-mailed with a colleague about an awards ceremony.

E-mailed with a friend about our honors students.

Met briefly with my (currently non-)writing group to talk about summer plans.

Climbed a ladder to inspect our new roof.

Cooked rice and fish.

Walked around the block.

Unpacked the stereo plus the cushions and old sheets that lined the boxes.

Agreed to write a recommendation letter.

Another exciting day

Exciting because it was so almost-normal.

I woke up before my alarm went off, and would have been able to see the sunrise had there been one. But it was a grey day that just got gradually lighter, no color to speak of. Around 7:15 I started stretching, finishing half an hour later. I fed the cats, put in a load of laundry, ate breakfast, answered e-mail, wrapped a present for a friend’s birthday. Then I put up a discussion board question for a class, and hung the laundry on a rack to dry.

Around 10:30, I drove to campus, where I returned ten books and checked out three. I scanned four selections from various books for my grad class, and collected my mail, which consisted of issues of three different journals. Then I drove home again, thinking about passages to discuss in my afternoon class. I arrived in time for a half-hour lunch break before a half-hour language group meeting, then had about twenty minutes before my undergrad class.

Class was okay, but students weren’t very willing to talk. Discussion worked better last semester than at present. This might be because in the fall, more students knew each other from in-person classes. I know I have a few this term who are new to LRU. Or it might just be that it’s February and every day feels like a snowy Monday.

I had a little over an hour between the afternoon class and my night class. I ate dinner and tried to do some last-minute prep. I discovered that two of the pieces I scanned in the morning failed to send properly: I had two copies each of two selections, instead of one each of four. I think I know what happened, but I will need to make another campus run to scan the lost pieces. One of the grad students said, before we started class, that she was enjoying my teaching style and appreciated my approach to the class. This really threw me off! I’ve been feeling so barely-prepared for this class, and am constantly thanking my students for their patience with me as I make adjustments to the syllabus. The only thing I think I’m doing right is extending the same generosity to them when it comes to deadlines. We’re all doing the best we can, and it’s February, and we’ve had nearly a year of pandemic life.

After class I spent a few minutes reading through a conference paper I wrote nearly eight years ago. It’s supposed to be part of the book I’ve been working on at least that long. I’m wondering about expanding it into an article. I think this would just be procrastinating on the revisions I need to finish on another article.

On a normal day (old-normal) I would have stayed on campus for my classes, and then driven home at night. I might have managed to do some research in the afternoon slot when in this reality I was driving home.

Campus was eerily empty. While I was in the library, I saw six people, four of whom were staff. While I was in my office building, I saw one other person, a staff member who seemed to be roaming the halls for exercise, as I used to do on long on-campus days in cold weather. I had no trouble finding a parking place.

I used to get so tired of spending my life driving back and forth to LRU. I found my office building dreary, and had to remember that any library excursion would take twice as long as I thought it should. On this day, it was exciting to drive even such a familiar route (it’s been at least a couple of months since I last did so), and felt that I had never properly appreciated having an office to go to. The library errands took almost exactly the time I expected, since I didn’t have to search for books that weren’t shelved where they ought to be, nor did random books hurl themselves into my arms as I wandered the stacks, as the stacks are closed to patrons. Flirting with random books is one of the main things that used to eat up library time, but I miss those serendipitous discoveries.

Fast away the old year passes

And thank Cat that’s over . . . except that one of my principles is “it can always get worse,” so I’m not entirely thrilled to see 2020 go. We’ll hope for the best. In 2020, I got to move, and discovered that I don’t hate teaching online as much as I expected to. As the introvert’s introvert, I’m very happy to be at home with Sir John, my cats, and lots of books, all the time. Life is good, though I miss traveling.

2020 saw an international trip in January, the only trip I made this year. I re-submitted an old R&R, which was rejected a few months later (I immediately submitted it elsewhere). I made strawberry-rhubarb pie for Pi Day. I lost track of the weeks at the end of the pivoted-to-online spring semester, and still came up with a final assignment that the students enjoyed writing and I enjoyed reading. It might not have been wholly rigorous, but this year, I’m taking continued student engagement as a Big Fat Win. We finally got an offer on our old house and went into contract on it. I did a whole series of posts about house-hunting, starting here; it was somewhat stressful staring down a closing date and having to move during a pandemic, but we were so happy to be getting out that really it was all okay. I did my last old-house Six on Saturday.

We love the new house. Basement Cat and Reina have achieved détente here, although the dialogue reported in this post is still enacted regularly. I considered five decades of changes in my life. For a couple of days, the surface of my desk was visible. I enjoy the new garden.

I discovered Maria Nikolajeva’s blog, and am sadly reminded, today, that I have to put together my documents for annual review. It’s a comfort to know that even the wildly accomplished hate the process. I emulated a minor character from Barbara Pym. Once the semester was over, I thought about all the things I needed and wanted to do over winter break, far more than there is really time for. A good bit of the break has gone to reading and doing jigsaw puzzles, and we have also managed a couple of runs to the storage unit for more boxes, so I’ve happily done some re-discovery of Books I Have Missed.

I found at least two books in the fantasy/YA stash that I have no recollection of either reading or buying. I am guessing that I acquired them not long before the Massive Declutter Effort, now some four years back, when I thought the house would sell quickly and I’d only be without the packed items for six months or so, and that I packed unread books thinking that they’d be an incentive to unpack once we moved. I wonder what other unexpected treasures I’ll (re)discover once the weather cooperates enough to let us go for another load.

I plan to celebrate the New Year on Nova Scotia time and go to bed after that. See you in 2021!

Winter break, day 3

Or is that “break”? I have no classes or meetings to show up for (oh, thank Cat, no meetings), but I have two classes to prepare for online delivery in the “spring” semester. In this climate and since spring break has been omitted from the calendar (to prevent students going away and spreading The Virus), that will be the “winter” semester for most of its length, I expect.

But I digress. One of these classes I have taught before, and preparing it is just (“just”!) a matter of revising for online delivery. And now I know how much is involved in that revision. Last summer I did a whole lot more planning and writing of assignments than I normally do in summer, and vastly more to build an online site for the class, and still I was scrambling nearly every week of the semester to finish putting up the necessary online stuff in time.

The other class, well, technically I’ve taught it before. Once. Over a decade ago. And I will not be teaching it in anything like the way I did then. Different books, different approach, different assignments, different everything. So effectively starting from scratch. I kept trying to find time to work on it, this fall, but all I really did was order books and start assembling a reading list.

So I’d have my work cut out for me, if class prep were all I had to do in the next four weeks.

There are also the dread Annual Documents to prepare, an accepted essay to revise (I kept trying to work on it all through the fall, and could not keep momentum going), a new essay that has been nagging at me and which I’d like to have a bash at, a whole lot of reading that I want to do, starting with a book on medieval Spanish art that Jon Jarret kindly recommended, continuing with various books that I have more or less impulsively bought or requested from the library, and assorted PDF essays that I ran across while helping students with their projects and more or less impulsively downloaded for research purposes of my own. Also I must take notes on a big fat ILL book, now overdue, which I have finally finished reading but only by dint of putting in a sticky note wherever something caught my eye and plowing on, so now I must return and see if I can work out what was important on the marked pages. There are only a few copies of this volume in the US, and none in my state, so I have it from Far Away, thus the need for good notes and perhaps some scanning.

I’d also like to do some more settling-in to the new house. Some repairs need seeing to, and I really want to get books and other items out of the storage unit and unpack them. Then there will be a whole lot more reading I’d like to do, when I have my favorite fiction available again! Also pictures to hang, and china . . . well, I probably shouldn’t unpack the china until we acquire a suitable sideboard or china cabinet for it. But I can gloat over the boxes, at least.

I came here planning on reporting on the first two days of break. So far, I’ve done yoga before breakfast three days in a row (yay), written nearly 1000 words of notes on the big fat ILL volume, cut my own hair, gone for a six-mile walk (and a shorter one the second day), baked cookies, read a very frothy novel published in 1910, loaded a bunch of teaching files into a shared folder on Dropbox for a colleague at another institution, and drilled a lot of Greek vocabulary, principle parts, and noun endings.

Do I know how to have fun, or what?

How I wish it were true that university faculty don’t work more than six hours a week and swan off to the Caribbean the minute classes are over (or maybe before) to guzzle brightly-colored drinks with little umbrellas.

At any rate, it’s time to get down to work on the writing and planning, so here we go.

WTF?

It’s been awhile since I’ve read either the Chron or Inside Higher Ed. I have enough to do, what with reading archives of my favorite bloggers, teaching, and trying to write, or maybe those things go in reverse order. But today a blog-update link showed a headline at IHE that interested me, so I went and read the piece, and then clicked on the Advice section to read a some advice about teaching online.

Tip #1, about establishing rules for the classroom, starts with this sentence: “Many students alchemize participating in distance learning with sitting in front of an optically and audibly challenged neophyte substitute.”

What?

Seriously, I have no idea what this sentence means. Did the writer take a comprehensible sentence and run it through one of those synonym-substituter programs?

I should have stopped reading there. The rules suggested strike me as . . . out of touch with current reality, despite the claim to respond to COVID-related teaching concerns. Repeated logging out/in can be because of network connectivity problems. Maybe the bed with a sibling’s band on the other side of the wall is the only place the student has any privacy (it’s true they could at least make the bed). The point to a chat forum is that it simulates the back-and-forth of actual conversation; that’s why people use abbreviations for frequently-used phrases.

I’ll go back to checking out people’s archives when I need a break, and continuing my abstention from higher-ed news. It’s strangely unenlightening.

The dreaded annual report

It’s a relief to know that even famous professors at Cambridge hate putting together their annual reports (or did, ten years ago):

“I am spending – wasting, as it were – a beautiful autumn Sunday writing an annual report. Of course it’s my own fault, I shouldn’t have put it off until the very last days, but, frankly, writing annual reports is absolutely the worst part of being an academic, worse even than Quality Assurance and Grade Adjudication put together. . . .

It is not even an annual report. It is a biennial report, summing up my achievements since I came here two years ago. I thought that when I reached the height where I am now, all this would be over and done with. I cannot climb higher (because I don’t want to be Head of Faculty, or Head or School, or Second Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor twice removed). I cannot be fired. Let me be. But no, I must write this report, with everything I’ve done since I came here – I wish I’ve kept track – with a list of publications, five most important highlighted, two academic referees from Cambridge-acknowledged institutions who must know me well, but not too well, and the worst of all, a personal statement. I am sure there are services on internet that write personal statements for anyone, although I wouldn’t quite trust them. But if I could pay somebody, from the pay increment I might get through this painful exercise, to do this for me! I find it tedious and humiliating. I understand it is necessary – or is it? So many hours, days, perhaps weeks spent every year in academia to write these reports that will be scrutinised by numerous committees, and how many hours and days do I spend writing references for other people going through the same process. Perhaps I would not make a sensational scientific discovery today, Sunday, instead of writing my report. On the other hand, who knows? I am not sure whether it was on a Sunday that Newton was hit on his head by that famous apple, but surely he was sitting and meditating in one of Cambridge’s many pretty gardens rather than writing an annual report.”

Maria Nikolojeva, Confessions of a Displaced Hedgehog: Self-Assessment, 17 October 2010

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.