The right to concentrate

In a thread at Jonathan’s about procrastination (or whatever not-working is), Profacero said “one needs to feel one has the right to concentrate, and to the time that goes into struggle with material.”

If one doesn’t naturally feel that, one needs reminders, internal or external.

I don’t think I had trouble concentrating, or feeling that I had a right to concentrate, when I was in elementary school, high school, or college. My parents emphasized that school was my job, and let me do my homework in peace. So at least for me, this is not an early trauma (I don’t think), but one that developed during a particular un-peaceful time in my life, which was also a difficult time for my mother.

Between college and graduate school, after several months living in another country, I returned to my parents’ house. My mother was needy and possessive. She had missed me. She was going to miss me more. Although I didn’t know this at that time, my parents’ marriage was particularly rocky at this point. I was very anxious, waiting for acceptances from graduate schools, working several part-time jobs, studying Latin in my few spare hours, because I knew it would be important for my graduate work and I had exaggerated my competence on my applications.

My mother interrupted me frequently when I was trying to study. She did not respect my time. She no longer thought, apparently, that school (or preparation for it) was my job. My job, in her eyes, was looking after her. I was 22 and I thought I was all grown up. I wanted to be compassionate. I was somewhat flattered that she wanted me to be my friend, although I also wanted to live my own life and have her live hers. I tried to answer her patiently and compassionately. I always wound up furious and then self-reproachful for losing my temper.

I wasn’t even trying to write, just to study. I still find studying languages soothing and I think I am less likely to self-interrupt when reading in another language or working on vocabulary than I am when researching and writing. But when I read Z’s comment, that was the time in my life that I immediately zeroed in on as a source of my intermittent sense that I do not have the right to concentrate, that I am to be at other people’s disposal. I’m not sure how to get back that earlier sense that studying is my job, but I wish I could feel that way again, as a regular thing.

This may be a silly idea, but perhaps it could come via clothing . . . long ago, maybe at one of Dr Crazy’s blogs, there was a discussion of writing costumes (special writing outfits, whether super-comfy or dressed up). Maybe if I dressed as my teenage self or even my childhood self, I could sink into that happy, absorbed “now I am doing my homework!” feeling. How much do external cues help? I would hope that the more I access that self, the more accessible it would become, without costume.

(I am so tired of dealing with my mommy issues. It seems to be the case that when my life changes in significant ways, the issues that seemed to have been resolved come back for another round, and the “new me” has to work through them again.)

Things to do

So we have come to live in Bizarro World. There is a rift in the space-time continuum, only half the passengers understand this, the Enterprise is stuck and can’t make it over to bail us out, and Sisko and the Bajorrans are too far away to do anything clever with the wormhole. What now?

Some of the people whose blogs I read regularly are already thinking about how to react: Christine, with a comforting post; Cloud, with a thoughtful one; Fie, with characteristic refusal to quit. And John Scalzi’s worth a look. In The Middle makes a statement I can get behind.

I expect part of the reason I am so stunned is that I am not, in general, a very political person. I tend to cultivate my own garden, focus on the things I can change, ignore the ones I can’t, avoid conflict, political debate, and activism, and just sort of float along, sticking my neck out for nobody, as Rick says in Casablanca. I have only so much energy and only one life, and I like contemplating lilies (if you have two loaves of bread, sell one and buy a lily).

Thus, in that lily-contemplating spirit, while I’m going to be looking for ways to help people who help immigrants, I’m also a patron of the fantastic blog Medieval People of Color, because people need to know that the European Middle Ages were not a white supremacist’s fantasy land, and of Pamela Dean, because we’re going to need some more good escapist fiction.

It’s a start.





I don’t know what to say to my students tomorrow.

My students who are Muslim, mixed-race, American-born black, American-born of Hispanic descent, West-Indies-born immigrants. Those are just the ones I know I will face tomorrow . . . so many other faces of other backgrounds, from other semesters, are in my mind, including a young woman who found out, months before her 21st birthday, that she was illegal, in this country illegally, brought as an infant, which her parents never told her. These students know, better than I do, how racist this country is. I don’t want them to have to comfort me. But I’m not sure I have it in me to be their older, wiser, reassuring professor.

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)

YA book review: The Fair Adventure

When I was looking for the Verney book, I also found The Fair Adventure, by Elizabeth Janet Gray (shelved under her married name, Vining, never mind how she identified as a writer or what her publisher put on the title page. I blame the patriarchy). This was one I liked when I was, oh, maybe in middle school, I’m not sure. The sixteen-year-old heroine, Page MacNeil, was definitely older than I was, enough older to seem glamorous, but near enough to seem like someone I could aspire to be. I remember that it took me awhile to read this book instead of re-shelving it after a quick glance at its pages, because the title suggested a fantasy-quest sort of book, when in fact it’s a book about What Happened The Summer After A Girl Graduated From High School.

There are a lot of those books. Sometimes they’re about jobs, and sometimes they’re about looking forward to college, and they’re nearly always about boys: outgrowing a high school boyfriend, or meeting a new one who’s going to the same or a nearby college. Whatever. The Summer-After-High-School book is, to me, a recognizable sub-genre.

The Fair Adventure seems far more modern than Friday’s Tunnel, though published in 1940 and set in the late 1930s. Daddy’s Depression salary cut has not yet been restored, and wealthy visitors have strong opinions about the New Deal, Trade Unions, the Race Question, and Socialism, but there is not a word about what might be happening in Europe. Page does have a rather narrow outlook. Well, she’s sixteen, she just graduated from high school, and she lives in a small college town in Virginia. She knows she hasn’t experienced anything much; she’s never even left the state. She hopes to go to a women’s college in the north and study Art History, and learn to be a painter. Daddy teaches Classics at the local co-ed college, where “girls went in for dates and clothes and feminine charm” (120), and because money is tight and she fails to get a scholarship to her northern dream school, Page may have to go there, where there isn’t a single class in Art History.

The plot mainly consists of episodes in which events in her older siblings’ lives overshadow significant firsts in Page’s life (high school graduation, a good role in a play, getting a permanent wave), alongside the problem of where she’ll go to college. Marriage is a significant theme: her next older sister gets married, her oldest brother gets engaged. However, it’s not explicitly one of Page’s ambitions. She’s being “rushed” by a very eligible boy, the college president’s son, back from his freshman year at Princeton. In fact, he has flunked out, and seems willing to go to the local college if Page will be there. Clearly, she could stay home, date this boy, and settle into a comfortable small-town life, if she wanted to.

Such a life can be busy and useful, as her mother illustrates: she’s a member of multiple clubs, including a church group, the PTA, and the garden club. Page’s older sister, Jean, graduates from nursing school on the same day that Page graduates from high school; although Jean marries a young doctor before the summer is out, Page reflects on the way the couple have “fresh responsibilities both to each other and to the community” (244). The oldest sister, Alison, is 28 and has three children, the oldest eight years old. Dr. MacNeil complains that “Every thought she has is impregnated with Fred’s ideas. It comes of marrying too young. Page, you are not to marry till you’re thirty” (108). Nonetheless, Alison is staying with her parents temporarily after three years in Panama with Fred, her engineer-husband, and at the end of the summer the young family go off to Canada. Even if Alison doesn’t work outside the home, it’s pretty clear that she’s contributing a lot to her family’s well-being, and that when her children are older she will, like her mother, put her talents to work in the community.

The large family is close-knit and imaginative. One of the charming set-pieces is the play that they write and perform to celebrate their mother’s birthday, a spoof of their family life in which they work in all the characteristic activities and sayings of the family members, and Alison’s five-year-old plays her great-grandmother to great effect.

“What I need is scope,” Page says early on (42), and she eventually gets it. Or makes it. She’s not really impressed by the eligible boy who wasted his time at Princeton on extra-curriculars instead of studying at least enough to stay in school. She forgets a date with him when she has the opportunity to get paid for a water-color, and this leads her to tell him they’re seeing too much of each other. She clearly identifies as an artist, not as a girlfriend or muse.

I didn’t notice the period elements when I was in middle school, but I enjoyed them now. It’s the US before the second world war, before Eisenhower’s highways, when a mountain guest house provided candles to go to bed by, when the younger members of a family turned out of their rooms and slept on cots on a sleeping porch in order to make room for guests, because putting them up at a hotel just wouldn’t be hospitable.

I’d like to know what SophyLou thinks of this one.

When old boyfriends convert

I’ve been looking at some of Flavia’s old posts about teaching (there are great bits in the comments, as well), and also ran across this one, in which she expresses her “horror” that her “first boyfriend–last seen as a smart, hilarious Jew with interests in politics, foreign affairs, and baseball, a guy who was fluent in Mandarin by age 21 and spent most of his college years living abroad–is now an insurance agent in Omaha, a Creationist, and an actual Jew for Jesus.”

Not that I dated the actual same guy, but I was once engaged to a man for whom I fully expected to convert to Judaism, and when through idle web-stalking I discovered that he is now an Episcopalian (not in Omaha), I was shocked. I was going to be the convert; what was up with him turning to Christianity? But I found it hard to articulate why this bothered me, and doubted that anyone else would understand it. Now it seems that Flavia would get it, and in fact, already got it.

How many of us have someone in our past who made some sort of huge change like that? Or are you the one who changed?

You, Andrew Marvell

And here face down beneath the sun
And here upon earth’s noonward height
To feel the always coming on
The always rising of the night:

To feel creep up the curving east
The earthy chill of dusk and slow
Upon those under lands the vast
And ever climbing shadow grow

And strange at Ecbatan the trees
Take leaf by leaf the evening strange
The flooding dark about their knees
The mountains over Persia change

And now at Kermanshah the gate
Dark empty and the withered grass
And through the twilight now the late
Few travelers in the westward pass

And Baghdad darken and the bridge
Across the silent river gone
And through Arabia the edge
Of evening widen and steal on

And deepen on Palmyra’s street
The wheel rut in the ruined stone
And Lebanon fade out and Crete
High through the clouds and overblown

And over Sicily the air
Still flashing with the landward gulls
And loom and slowly disappear
The sails above the shadowy hulls

And Spain go under and the shore
Of Africa the gilded sand
And evening vanish and no more
The low pale light across that land

Nor now the long light on the sea:

And here face downward in the sun
To feel how swift how secretly
The shadow of the night comes on . . .

—Archibald MacLeish


Although I’m not in the TLQ group, I often follow along because it can be motivating to see other people’s efforts to get to the truly important stuff, and comforting to see how/when/why they have trouble getting to it (since I also often get distracted by the Urgent rather than focusing on the Important).  This week’s topic made me want to write about something I started doing last week (that is, before this topic posted).

I don’t do well with external rewards, no matter what they are.  Either I want the thing now, rather than later; or I’m going to do it later whether or not I am done with the tasks; or I find that I don’t really want the thing after all, in which case it’s a lousy motivator.  And yet just having the satisfaction of having completed a task does not necessarily motivate me, either.  It may feel like way too small a portion of the whole thing: I wrote a paragraph of my book, big whoop; how many hundreds of paragraphs to go?  Or it may be something that provokes disproportional anxiety (hello, phone calls), so that the delight of having it over with is dwarfed by the agony of doing it combined with the feeling that I am doing-it-wrong because I can’t manage to think of this as the simple task it is for other people.

Okay, so having already admitted that I’m both perverse and pathetic, I will now tell you how easily I am motivated by a kindergarten technique: colored stars.  On difficult days, I keep a list not of things to do but of things I have done, and I assign myself points for them and draw colored stars or flowers to celebrate having done them.  I choose points depending on how hard it feels to do things.  The easy routine things like administering cat meds are one point; writing 400-500 words is five points; calling the insurance company is at least 10 points.  I don’t do anything with the points, like adding them up to win prizes of some kind.  It’s just a way of acknowledging to myself that that task took some energy and so I should get some recognition for it.  Drawing a star or flower or doodle takes very little time, a few seconds for a one-pointer, maybe a minute for something fancy to celebrate a ten-point task, but it’s a creative break from doing harder things.  And getting a page full of colored doodles for things I have done is surprisingly motivational.  I think drawing them myself is important.  Stickers don’t have the same effect unless they’re part of a design I have made.

Next year I’ll see if this works for grading.

On “Carpenter’s Block”

Undine and I are revisiting old posts, and a lot of us are working on summer writing projects, and I like to start the day by reading something inspirational (and, okay, web-procrastinating a bit), so I read this old one of hers:

The comment about not believing in “writer’s block” any more than in “carpenter’s block” struck me.  Hard.  Because some of my relations are carpenters, builders, and contractors, and they do run into such problems.  Okay, they’re not “blocked” as in “unable to pick up a hammer.”  If I said to one of them, at a not-working point, “Could you put together this bookshelf that fell apart when the movers knocked it around?” he could do it.  But they do have periods when they’re faced with a set of materials, a space to fill, a type of thing that needs to go in that space, using those materials, being functional in such a way . . . .

That’s not blocking, that’s a design problem, you say.


So consider that the writer, too, may have a design problem.  Or an organizational problem, or a significance problem, or an originality problem, or a perfectionist problem.  All of these are solvable problems.  Once we recognize that there is a solvable problem, we can find ways to solve it.  Sometimes that means writing something else, or going about our business until something shakes loose, or staring at the blank page and thinking.

I’m reminded of Comrade PhysioProf’s process, which involves a lot of putting off writing while he thinks, and which he vigorously defends (you can find bits and pieces in the comments of some of the writing group threads, here and on other blogs, but I don’t want to take the time to find the bits now).  It works for him.  He recognizes when the back of the mind needs time to work.

So, if you’re blocked, don’t beat up on yourself.  Think of it as carpenter’s block, as a design (or similar) problem, and think about how to solve that problem.