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!

MyCal

Over at TLQ, some participants have expressed interest in my goal-setting, list-making, calendar-tracking habits, and rather than hog the comments there, I’ll write it out here.

Everything I said here is still true: I’m temporally challenged, rebellious, dislike alarms, need paper, in fact need multiple paper calendars because the more I write down an event, commitment, or task, the more I believe it will actually come to pass and that I’ll have to do something about it. Otherwise, it’s more like, “Oh, that was a real thing? Not fiction? Are you sure? I only wrote it in one place, so it can’t be that important.”

If I were up for a two-page-per-day calendar plus goals set-up, this is what I’d prefer.

Sir John has set up a shared electronic calendar for us to track events like his meetings, my meetings, dryer-delivery, vet appointments, and so on. I remember to check it . . . about every three days. I gather his side of it is a whole lot more detailed, but I don’t have to go there. He’s one of those people who likes to schedule everything, with little alarm bells, and will actually shift from one activity to another when the bell rings.

I’m the sort who resists (mightily) getting started on anything, and then once I’m into it, don’t want to shift my attention to something else when the alarm goes.*

For the last few years, my usual format in my Moleskine is to have a weekly “goals” page, followed by daily or half-daily pages. The goals page notes at the top which week of the semester or break it is, out of how many. In recent months, I’ve added a “habits” page facing the goals, where I check off things that I want to do, if not daily, multiple times per week: stretch, go for a walk, change the cat water, hydrate the houseplants, take out the compost. Goals are generally divided into the categories Health, Teaching, Research, Admin/Service, and Life Stuff. Goals may be either discrete (Write Thing) or process-oriented (spend 30 minutes/day on Project). This summer, I’ve been unusually resistant (even for me) to using the calendar at all. Normally I’m happy to play around with the notebook and set up weekly and daily goals, even if I wind up doing other things I didn’t plan to do. But there are a LOT of things I need to be working on, and another LOT that I want to do because they are fun, and a discouraging LOT of house/life-related things that feel too much like work. It’s all a bit overwhelming, and I wind up wasting time instead of either doing something productive or deliberately doing something fun.

So I made a list of All The Things. It revealed to me** that most of the worky things I need to work on (plan classes, write book) are big, on-going projects that I should be doing little bits of every day, while the fun and house/life things are more likely to be one-offs (or at least composed of no more than five steps). Little-bit-every-day things can go on the habits page! In fact, the habits page can also get a line for Thing That Will Stay Done.

For the time being, therefore, I’m mainly using the habits page, and trying to check things off some reasonable amount per week, rather than writing out goals that haven’t been changing much for the past month or two. Oh, hey, maybe I’ve been resistant because I’m bored! I can believe that. It would definitely be nice to have some new goals. No doubt they will come when classes start. I expect then I’ll go back to needing a page per day to keep track of commitments and make notes about things that happened.

*I am frequently astonished that I have achieved as much as I have in my life, with this attitude, not just to switching tasks but in general. Proof that there are many roads to productivity! And also that reading fast and retaining the knowledge temporarily is one of my superpowers.***

**This is obvious to anyone who is good at time management. I’m slow, okay? Or no, the PC term I used above is “temporally challenged.” Let’s stick with that.

***I don’t retain anything I read fast, especially if it’s a work-related Policies and Procedures document. That sort of thing gets purged from working memory within hours. OTOH, I retain the most astonishing bits of trivia, including verbatim quotations from books I read when I was 15. My mind is a dim, dusty, outrageously cluttered attic with generations’ worth of trunks and boxes and piles of junk. In my teens and in college, I was much like xykademiqz, preferring boom/bust work cycles. When I was dissertating, I planned to a fare-thee-well and more-or-less stuck to that schedule. For awhile, anyway. Also like xyk, I always used to plan classes the morning-of, though while driving rather than in the shower. Not commuting last year, plus being online, meant a lot of really different planning for teaching. I think I like systems but I like the systems to change. OK, now I want to go read more at these links, and their links, etc. Maybe reading about other people’s systems will inspire me.

Book nerd

I own a lot of books. My spreadsheet shows over 1100 books in my scholarly collection, and I suspect there are a few that have escaped the spreadsheet.

I don’t keep track of the fiction, as there’s a certain amount of flux in that collection. Some favorites have been with me for most of my life, while other books come in, get read, and then given away again.

Because I have so many books, I keep the scholarly collection ordered by Library of Congress call numbers. Roughly. Due to various moves, sometimes they’re only sorted by letter(s) and then maybe by period: DA is English history, and I can usually tell by the title whether they’re 13th, 14th, or 15th century. I have ambitions to get them all properly organized, so in my spreadsheet I try to give each its proper call number.

This is easy for books published in the US, which generally print an LC number on the publication page. It’s still easy for UK and European books that are owned by major US libraries that use the LC system, or which belong to some UK libraries that have adopted the LC system for convenience (IIRC, the Oxford History Faculty does this).

Then there are the truly obscure books, published by minor presses in the UK, owned only by repository UK libraries and various German libraries, none of which use LC numbers. This is where I get into the Library of Congress site and start downloading PDFs explaining their system, so that I can assign an appropriate number in my spreadsheet.

Why do I do this? (A) I need some sort of system, and (B) most of the libraries I use are on LC, so (C) it’s convenient to be able to look for books among their usual friends, no matter where I am.

I actually love getting into the LC’s PDFs and figuring out how to catalog my weird books. It’s so cool that the LC provides information about their system to anybody who wants it. I may have only one book in the CB category, but I know that is its proper area.

Hail the new!

My intention for the year: roll with the punches. I’m sure there will be some.

That doesn’t stop me planning. I’ve re-booked a trip I had hoped to take last year, mainly (TBH) because the voucher I was holding was about to expire. The airline wanted me to use it within twelve months of when I first booked the trip. Well, ha very ha, sorry, but that’s not happening. It took quite awhile, but I did manage to get the trip pushed out to May, so we’ll see if that’s time enough to get vaccinated and for the library I want to visit to re-open. Considering that the alternative was just giving up and losing the money entirely, I’m willing to gamble.

Today I did two things I’ve been putting off for months: potted or re-potted some house plants (two African violet plantlets had been rooting in water since August), and hung pictures. The plants took under two hours, including setting up and cleaning up afterwards, and did not spawn any off-shoot projects. I certainly have had spare chunks of two hours in the last four months, but not the bandwidth to deal with getting out the new pots and soil, shutting up Basement Cat, clearing the kitchen table, actually dealing with the plants, putting everything back, and cleaning up. I spent my spare time reading fluff or going for walks, rather than embarking on multi-step projects, although I did at some point buy new pots, also drywall screws for the pictures.

Hanging the pictures took a little longer. There, the steps were find toolbox, get out drill, dig around for drill bits, discover that the little doohickey that tightens down the bit holder is missing, take everything out of the tool box to look for it, find that it is entirely missing, test various Allen wrenches and screwdriver heads to find something that will sorta-kinda replace it (and make note to get a real replacement on a day that is not a national holiday), measure various walls, make holes in walls, screw in the drywall screws, hang pictures, put everything away. I managed to lose the hammer at one point, but found it in the bag with the drill. The hammer was part of an off-shoot project; one picture frame was loose and needed to be tacked down again. Fortunately I recently turned up a little packet of the right sort of tacks.

It’s the propensity for off-shoot projects that keeps me from tackling tasks like this. So often, the steps go Find Object A, Discover that Part B is Missing, Spend C Amount of Time Looking for Part B, Spend D Amount of Time Going to E Stores for Replacement Part B, return home to discover that Cat F has Damaged Object A, Say “oh fuck it” and Pour Wine or Eat Chocolate.

I have also started setting up calendar stuff for January and beyond, which I’ve been putting off for a week, I think in rebellion against the entire idea of calendars and task lists.

Today’s productivity may or may not be a good sign for the rest of the year. Nonetheless, if I do nothing else but worky-work for the rest of the month, at least I’ve done these two things that will Stay Done (for awhile, anyway; eventually the plants will need more attention), so I’m claiming that I have Won January.

In which I regret my love of sticky notes

Many of my readers will wonder how I could possibly reach this pass. Even if I have a lifetime supply, office supplies are a joy forever.

This regret has to do with my note-taking habits. Well, that and my tea-drinking habits.

I have finally got round to working with a book I’ve had checked out for, um, let’s just say awhile, and discovered that I did at one time start reading it. The first 90 pages or so had multiple blue sticky-notes stuck into them, with actual notes written on them (yay! not only did I start reading, I took notes, so I don’t have to try to figure out why in the world I marked that page).

So far, so good. However, through a combination of carelessness and clumsiness, yesterday I overturned a cup of tea on my desk, and this book was in the way. Since it’s a library book, I rescued it first, before any books, notebooks, or clothes belonging to me.* Interleaving it with lots of toilet paper and weighting the book means that today the pages are dry and flat, no warping.

Unfortunately, a number of the pages are also stained blue at the edges, even though I hastily removed all my sticky notes (which are now adorning my desk). Why couldn’t this have happened to a book I own? (Sod’s Law, duh.) I could tell, yesterday, that the sticky notes were sucking up tea much faster than the book’s pages, and there was only so fast I could work, particularly as I didn’t want to tear softened, wet pages.

I think at this point I should leave well enough alone. A quarter-inch blue edging is probably not the worst thing that could happen to a book, while trying to remove the color could cause further damage. We will not even consider trying to apply blue dye to the entire leading edge of the volume.

But I regret the bright blue notes.

More happily, perhaps this gives me license to procure more sticky notes, in paler colors! Any excuse . . . .

The corollary, however, would no doubt be that I ought to divest myself of brightly-colored notes: not sure I can bring myself to it.

Or stop drinking tea while working.

Definitely unlikely to bring myself to that.

*All of these also came in for contact with tea, but since none of them had bright blue sticky notes attached, all have cleaned up nicely.

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.

On August, time, and grace

It’s being one of those long, busy months. I still feel the stars hurtling through the heavens, the northern hemisphere slouching into a new season, but there’s less time to appreciate the passing of time now that classes have started again. My life is carved into lists, lists for each class, lists for research, lists for house, health, finances. Sleep, once again, is iffy, because I am over-stimulated. Not worried, there’s nothing to worry about, but change is coming down the pike, this year, next year, soon, and I feel unsettled.

August has been long in part because of two trips. I went to a most excellent conference, which stimulated in all the good ways; research is definitely exciting at the moment. Sir John accompanied me on a trip to my old stomping grounds, during which we had a very active social life. It was great to see people, but I wish we could have scattered all our events over a couple of months instead of cramming them into a week!

We went to a dinner that assembled several high-school friends and our spouses. We all married “out,” that is, to people who are from somewhere else, met when we were adults, who know only by hearsay of our long-ago parties, excursions, jokes, and catch-phrases. In such a mixed group, we can all be our adult selves, with minimal reminders of the teens we once were. Maybe my friends would be okay with the reminders, but I am much happier as an adult and prefer to think that I have moved far beyond my young self. Long ago, when I was slightly freaked out about turning 18 and thus being legally adult when I had little notion of how “to adult,” as the phrase now goes, the host of this dinner assured me, “Grown-ups have more fun.” I have found this to be true.

We also attended a memorial service for a friend’s father, a beloved and influential teacher. My friend told me that he had kept the poems I showed him when I was, what, 18? 20? I am not, now, a poet. I channeled my creative impulses into literary research, and as a scholar I am tolerably successful. (That is, employed!) I may have a better appreciation for poetry because I once wrote some; I don’t know. My friend’s father’s great gift was to see and respect young people, children and teens, as complete people, interesting in themselves, not for what they might become. If they were interested in basketball, poetry, or rap music, then he talked to them about basketball, poetry, and rap. He learned from them. They learned—we learned—something about how to be an adult who pays attention, who is kind, who takes people of any age seriously.

These are not lessons I learned from my parents.

I am still most extremely imperfect in putting those lessons into practice.

These two events, and others with them, have me thinking: who do I want to be, and how can I be that person? My lists and obligations do not sum me up; they are part of me—I’m sure my friend’s father made his own lists—but not all of me. I want to live with something of the attention, intention, and grace that he had, that he gave freely to everyone who passed through his life.

Awesome idea, plus some whining

Apart from going to Mass every day (or at all), this sounds to me like a fabulous vacation, and I am going to try to do something like it after the semester is over:

https://lafemmefollette.typepad.com/lafemmefollette/2016/06/castaway.html

 

I have ideas for at least two substantive posts but I still need to Do All The Things even though I am nearly done with one Enormous Thing (style-check of the Huge Honking Translation), and I just don’t have the time/brain to engage with blogging ideas. I found a wonderfully soothing, repetitive loop of classical piano and cello on YouTube that was exactly what I needed to keep my monkey-mind distracted, or do I mean focused, both/either/whatever, while I read through 150 pages of translated medieval text. Only another 50 or so to go! Starting Tuesday I’ll be able to see if the music works for grading as well.

Please tell me I am not the only sorry procrastinator who still has not taken tax-related stuff to the accountant. But if you file E-Z on the 15th don’t tell me, we need the accountant and at this point I am procrastinating in part because I feel so guilty about giving them more last-minute work. I have a stack of documents. I have the checklist from last year. I can do this.

And then the rest of the Things will not seem so bad. Right?

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?