Going back in time

On Friday, I thought I’d try tracking where I was every hour on the hour, sort of like in those “photo an hour” posts, but minus the photographs.

6:00 a.m., putting on my socks in bed, prior to sitting up for the rest of my clothing.

7:00 a.m., drinking tea in the rocking chair, Basement Cat in my lap, enjoying the early sunlight.

8:00 a.m., in the middle of a stretching session.

9:00 a.m., breakfast over, folding sheets from the dryer.

10:00 a.m., working on readings for my grad class.

11:00 a.m., same.

12:00 noon, finished putting PDFs, links, and self-typed files onto the CMS, about to eat lunch.

1:00, making notes in journal about what I’d been doing.

2:00, reviewing applications to LRU’s graduate program in English.

3:00, talking with Sir John about technical terms for roofing materials.

4:00, in my car, nearly to the town where I used to live, where I was going to pick up a new pair of glasses (old pair broke a couple of weeks ago).

5:00, shopping in the grocery store I used to shop in, larger than the local branch of that chain.

6:00, in my car again, almost to my exit.

7:00, gathering ingredients to make brownies.

8:00, watching a DVD with Sir John.

9:00, eating brownies with Sir John.

10:00, dozing off in the bathtub.

11:00, in bed with lights out.

It was strange being in my old town. The houses seem much closer together, the streets more crowded. More people were wearing masks outside, which makes sense for the denser conditions. One large building has now been completely dismantled, so that corner seems oddly empty. There was a new assistant at the shop where I picked up my glasses, though the optician I’m used to was also there. I noticed the flatness all over again. I feel much more at home here, with hills and, if not views, at least vistas.

It was a longish day, but not nearly as long as Fridays used to be when I got up at 5:45 to leave the house by 7:00 for a campus meeting at 8:30, and sometimes stayed on campus till 6:00, sometimes went to a social event on the way home, sometimes stayed up far too late reading to counteract the day full of people and events.


It will be so much quicker to just do some of the things I have to do than to start having feelings about them (ugh, don’t want to, why can’t someone else on this committee do more, why didn’t I do this last week/last month, why am I so slow, guilt, too many things, gah). So I’m declaring this morning a no-feelings zone.

Yesterday I saw a colleague who has been dealing with a perfect storm of deadlines for months now. She is usually a fairly calm person but has been performing stress lately, including complaining about having spent the whole of spring break working. I said I’d worked throughout it as well but also had spent a lot of time at the gym, reading, etc. She asked if I had deadlines to meet and I said oh yes, they whooshed by. She said she was losing sleep over hers: “I’m neurotic that way.” I laughed and said, “Well, I’m irresponsible that way.” She thought we should be combined into one person.

I don’t agree. I’d rather be me. She has accomplished more than I have, in less time, it’s true, and I do have a little envy of that. But I’m being responsible to my health, and if I don’t do that, I won’t be able to work at all. So I have a lot of days when I don’t get that much done (and waste time and energy having feelings about that “failure”), but I hit the gym, and go to bed early (or as soon as I can), and try to set myself up for a better day tomorrow.

And this is tomorrow, so let’s see what I can get done before the next round of House Stuff and the afternoon gym visit.


A couple of people have called me “calm” in the last few months. This is not a word I would ever have applied to myself, so it surprises me to have it come up in both a familial and a professional setting.

My more reasonable brother said I was a calm person, based on (I suppose) his observations of my interactions with our father and other brother. The chair of my department said I seemed very calm about the process of applying for Full.

Well. Have I, perhaps, learned what is and is not important? Is it that I have dealt with far more stressful situations in the past, and so the current ones don’t seem particularly challenging? Or do I take my cues from people around me and I am currently fortunate in that they are fairly calm, so I can be, too? Maybe some of all of these.

Family is easier than it used to be. My mother’s final years were very stressful, because she constantly solicited help and then pushed it away, always with hysterical lamentations of How Awful Everything Is and how None Of Her Children Understood (she showed many signs of Borderline Personality Disorder, though she was never formally diagnosed with it). My brothers couldn’t really cope with her at all, so a lot fell to me. In comparison, my dad is a piece of cake. At his angriest and most demented, he is more straightforward and easier to deal with than my mother was. I have developed a number of mantras to help me deal with my less reasonable brother, including “Geoffrey’s gonna Geoffrey*” and “With those armpits.”

Anything work-related pretty much falls into the category of “not that important.” I do my job to the best of my ability, of course, but it’s not a life-and-death job like medicine. I’ve seen a lot of promotion applications because of sitting on a significant personnel committee, so I have a good idea of what they should look like and what the acceptable range of variation is. My colleagues support me, or they wouldn’t have invited me to apply. I have a good reputation in the college my department belongs to. It’ll all be fine.

Really, the most stressful thing in my life last week was having a journal tell me that the images I had provided were not suitable. This meant I had to scramble to learn a few things about GIMP so I could manipulate what I had (since going to England to take new photographs is not going to happen this week!). It all worked out. I’m a little behind on grading, but I’m sure that will work out too.

Lots of people have real problems, but I’m not one of them, not now anyway. So I guess I am calm.

*Not his real name, but his modus operandi is so predictable that it should certainly be a verb.


It’s spring break, so I want to DO ALL THE THINGS!!!!

All the research!  Finish and send out an article, write fellowship applications, review another article, work on a chapter draft!

All the teaching!  Grade all the things, plan everything to the end of the semester, write and post all the assignments, plan brilliant tying-it-all-together classes, read all the things for grad class and independent study!

All the Life Stuff!  Taxes, house and personal maintenance, social life, shopping, mending, cleaning, exercise an hour a day, go to multiple yoga classes . . . .

Um.  I’m tired already.  Pick one category?  Or one from each category?  It’s only nine days, and I don’t actually have that much manic energy.

I should just go away at spring break, so as not to have to make these decisions, although of course that just makes all the work multiply and subdivide like some particularly nasty virus.

Most immediately: it is above freezing for the first time in I don’t know how long*, so I am going to go for a walk**, and look for signs of spring.


*Have I mentioned that I hate this climate?  The plum blossoms are over already in reasonable parts of the world.

**Or wade, since snow is melting, I devoutly hope; where are my wellies?

she anoynted hit as she dud tofore

This is supposed to be my “easy” semester.  So why is my butt getting kicked?

Oh, let’s see.  Seventy undergrads, instead of 35 undergrads plus 10 or so grads.  Three independent-study students, with disjoint schedules, so I have to meet with each of them separately even when I need to impart the same information to them all.  Hiring season, and while I’m not on the committee, we’re looking for people in areas that are very important to me, so I’m going to all the presentations.  Disorganization on the part of the chair of a commitee I’m on, so I get to read heaps of stuff at the last minute.  Organizing the conference that is almost upon us; and that won’t be over when it’s over, because we also have the proceedings volume to deal with.  I do have various sorts of help with this, but that also means that much more communication to do.  Convening an exam committee.  Research.  Grading and prep.  Prep is usually not onerous, because I’m teaching a class I’ve done before and am happy with, but because of shifting paper due dates around (because of conferences etc), sometimes I need to throw together a lecture where in previous iterations I would have led discussion.

So I get home after nine hours on campus (plus 2 hours of driving and an hour or so at the gym), feeling that people have been chopping off little pieces of me all day.

I’m like that magical knight in the Book of Gareth, though: I regenerate.  I’m getting loads done today (everything except the grading!), so I can go for another nine hours tomorrow.

And then I really won’t be able to avoid the grading.  Where is the magical ointment for that?

People don’t read

Dear people coming to the conference,

I’m glad you want to come. BUT:

Why do I have to keep re-sending the same information to people who can’t be bothered to click on a link (okay, in one case you then have to click on another link from that one, but I’m not the one who designed that page; I wasn’t even consulted about its design) to find out what they need to know?

All you’re getting is the original e-mail with the link. I refuse to look all this stuff up and type it out just so you can not read your e-mail.

Huffily yours,

400th post

I guess I’m a slow worker, considering I’ve had this blog for four years next month and am just getting to my 400th post. On the other hand, look how consistent I am: still here, and apparently a pretty consistent blogger. Even if I don’t post frequent updates, I haven’t taken many long breaks, either, and the ones I do take usually happen because I’m traveling and don’t have good access to the internet.

Anyway, happy 400th to me! I’d like to start off the week on a celebratory note, because I feel like I’m running way behind with a lot of things. I had a fun weekend (long walk on a beautiful day, with friends; dinner out; read The Magician King, which I liked better than The Magicians, though I still don’t like Fillory and still think Quentin is a wanker), did a little laundry and a couple of other minor household tasks. Like, a normal person’s weekend. Only I’m not really a normal worker, so I’m worried about starting the week with undone tasks I would like to have finished already, especially because I will spend most of today in meetings.

Things will get done because they have to. I’ll manage. But I wish I could settle into a rhythm here. We’re four weeks into the term, and I still can’t get used to this teaching schedule. I thought it would be great, but never underestimate the disruptive power of change, even a good change. Teaching two days in a row at the beginning of the week is not something I have ever done, and so I keep being surprised that I have to go in on Tuesday, and that Wednesday isn’t Friday or Saturday, and so on. When will I get used to this?

All right. On to the next thing. I hereby wish my readers a happy or at least decent Monday; good luck with your lists, your classes, and your writing!

While I was out . . .

What I’ve been doing while not blogging enough:

Interviewing job candidates. Taking them to meals, attending their presentations, sitting round the table with the rest of the hiring committee and asking them questions.

And then gossiping soliciting my colleagues’ opinions of them.

Then sitting in the hiring committee’s meeting during which we try to rank our preferences. This always reminds me of the Scotsman’s remark about breakfast: “It’s a good thing we don’t all like the same things, or think what a shortage of oatmeal there would be.”

The person who studies Underwater Theory, not unnaturally, prefers the candidate who applies Underwater Theories to Basketweaving. Those of us (we few, we happy few!) who actually study Reed Production are fascinated by the candidate who compares Tropical and Cold Water Reeds, while the Underwater Theorists had trouble staying awake during that presentation.

Nonetheless, we eventually manage to order breakfast rank the candidates.

Then we get back to our regularly scheduled spring work, the annual reviews of each other and the rest of our colleagues. For this, I have to read everyone’s reports on service, on research, on teaching, and read other people’s teaching evaluations, which is no more pleasant than reading my own.

Then there’s my other big committee, at the college level, where I helped to rank applications for summer research funds. Next week, I am happy to say, this one will not meet, which means I have more time to read teaching evaluations. Be still, my heart.

Nonetheless, thanks at least in part to having had only a quiz to grade so far (this happy state of affairs will soon come to an end), writing has continued. I think I am done with that R&R. I’m leaving it in the sidebar until I actually send it to the editor. At the moment, it is in the hands of a friend who is reading it to see if it makes sense, if its organization is acceptable, and if I have left out any crucial information.

I have been writing (or at least moving projects forward) every day for awhile now. I decided that writing has to be like tooth-brushing or exercise, something that happens every day, no matter what. Of course, I have certain “advantages” when it comes to teeth and exercise: my teeth are terrible, so I have been brushing and flossing at least once a day for as long as I can remember, in hopes of keeping my own teeth as long as possible. Similarly, I have a chronic condition that I can control pretty well with exercise, so long as I do some stretching and some aerobic exercise every day, no exceptions.

I feel it almost immediately if I skip these sessions. Sadly, all these meetings in the past week mean I have been skimping if not skipping. Nonetheless, the comparison is instructive. Just as there are over-scheduled days when I spend 10 minutes stretching and then take the stairs instead of the elevator and make extra trips to the library just so I’ll do some moving around, as a sad little replacement for my usual 20-30 minutes of yoga and hour or two (counting changing and showering and so on) at the gym, so there are days when, at 10:00 at night, I open a document, stare at what I wrote yesterday, and tinker with a sentence before calling it a night and falling into bed. But that’s still writing. And I think (I hope) I have now got to the point where I feel twitchy and unhappy if I don’t do it, the way I feel achy and uncomfortable if I don’t exercise and can’t relax and fall asleep unless my teeth are clean.

I ordered a set of writing books from Amazon, who conveniently package Silvia’s How to Write A Lot, the most common Boice book (which I’ve read before, and I prefer the more expensive How Writers Journey to Comfort And Fluency), and the one on writing your journal article in 12 weeks. This was more in the nature of a reward (I love books about writing, as I’m sure I’ve said before) than as an effort to organize myself, because, somehow, I already got myself organized to write every day. The advance scheduling that at least two out of three of these books recommend doesn’t work so well for me. I like to write first thing; but sometimes I wind up staying up too late, or sleeping badly, and so I get up late and can’t write early in the day. Then I’m looking for time later. But the beauty of saying “it has to happen every day” means that I do the writing sooner or later. I try to pick out times the night before: in the morning if I wake up early enough, or if this meeting ends early I’ll write then, or in office hours if no one shows up, and if office hours do fill up, then when they are over I will close my door and write for twenty minutes before I go home. Then I know what the options are, and I’m ready to take advantage of whichever one is easiest to pounce on.

I’m not sure how this happened. Something just shifted in me, making it easier to put the writing first, to stop worrying about what I haven’t done or have put off, to put aside all the anxieties that so often accompany writing, so that I’m just doing it. For one thing, it felt really good to send off the corrections for the accepted piece. I really didn’t want to work on the R&R, but I did terribly want it to be done, so I worked on it in regular bits till I could say I was done, and now I am vastly pleased at having finished it (how I hope my friend doesn’t think it needs a major overhaul) and really happy to move on to the next thing on the list. It’s snowballing.

And, of course, I have been looking after the cats (not spending nearly enough time with them, poor pathetic neglected little animals whom nobody loves); Nicole and Maggie want more cat blogging, so I will try to oblige!

Annual reviews: why I hate them

Every year, we (members of my department) turn in four different forms reporting on everything we have done for the past year/two years/six years/career (depending on form). There’s the what-have-I-done-for-you-lately form that goes to the next level up, and the teaching report, the scholarship report, and the CV, which remain in the department. Different kinds of work “count” for different amounts of time.

If you’re just a member of the faculty, you complain about having to fill out all the different information in different places, and struggle to figure out what goes where, and whether 2003 is six years ago or seven, and then you hand everything in and you’re done with it.

I’m on the committee that reads through all these forms and assigns a number to everyone’s performance. I also get to (read: have to) read everyone else’s student evaluations, which is no more fun than reading my own, and look at syllabi and sometimes other teaching-related materials. If there’s time, I might even read some of my colleagues’ publications.

Why do I hate reading them?

Well, let’s see. Some of my colleagues publish much more than I do, and I am jealous. I wonder where they find the time, and whether they have partners who do a great deal on the home front, or if they live on frozen pizza, and if they can only do this because if you’re writing about an author who is still living you don’t have to wade through 150 years (or more) of scholarship.

Some of my colleagues publish much less than I do, and I am jealous. I am convinced that they have rich and fulfilling personal lives, involving either warm, close families who eat dinner together, share games nights, and offer great emotional support, or else involving travel to New York every weekend, with walks in the Village, fantastic food, and season tickets to both ABT and NYCB. (Or plug in whatever you’d get season tickets to: those are my picks.)

Some of my colleagues get terrific teaching evaluations from their students, and I am jealous. I wonder if they are simply naturally talented, in which case is it really fair to reward people for personality traits they were born with, when others give exactly the same kinds of assignments and don’t get the same results? Some of them, of course, may get good evaluations because they give really easy assignments and good grades, and I wonder if I should do the same (not to game the evaluations, but to buy time for research). Some of my colleagues don’t get good evals at all, and I think “There but for the grace of something or other go I.” Because these people seem perfectly reasonable, decent, and conscientious to me; why do they make such a different impression on their students?

Some of my colleagues do much more service than I do (hard to believe, but true), and then I feel bad for complaining about the amount that I do. Most of them do about the same amount, but I am convinced that in many cases, they are working on committees or other service work that are much more fun than the ones I’m on. In fact, in at least one case, having been on the other committee before, I know for a fact it’s more satisfying (at least for me), and I’d like to get back on it, but there are term limits, so I have to wait for awhile.

Clearly I have a bad case of grass-is-greener syndrome.

Seriously, it’s pretty easy to evaluate service, and not too bad to go through scholarship: number of pages is an objective calculation, and while we can argue about the value of various journals, at least circulation figures and acceptance rate are usually available and incontestable. But teaching is a bear. What is good teaching, and how do you tell? We don’t test students as freshmen and again as seniors; we have no mechanism to gather their opinions of their education five years after graduation, when they’ve had time to figure out what stuck with them and what turned out to be useful no matter how irrelevant or hateful it seemed at the time. Is it good teaching to make students happy so they are receptive to new knowledge and willing to attempt new skills? Is it making them revise papers multiple times? Is it rigorous reading and writing assignments, perhaps with workshopping and performance requirements? Can students really evaluate good teaching, or should the committee just look for possible problems like complaints about the time it takes to return papers, a small number of assignments, or consistent professorial lateness? (And even these need to be double-checked: is “a long time” ten days or a month? “He’s always late and cancels office hours” sometimes translates to “one week when his whole family was sick he was late twice and cancelled physical office hours but was available via e-mail.”)

My questions are rhetorical. Dr Crazy, among others, has discussed teaching the kinds of students we get at regional universities far more thoughtfully and incisively than I think I could. I’m not trying to get into a debate about good teaching practice, but rather to show why it is difficult to demystify the annual evaluation of teaching. Every year, some members of the evaluation committee rotate off and new ones come on. So, though the name is the same, the committee is different; members interpret evidence differently, put more or less stress on student happiness, spend more or less time looking at supporting documents; and the numbers change.

We have to do these evaluations. But I sometimes think the most important element is the self-reflection they induce: what have I done lately? Where is my time going? Are my students well-served by the number of assignments I give? Trying to compare my colleagues’ apples, kumquats, quinces and raspberries, and assign a score to such very different fruit, is difficult and frustrating for all concerned. I wish we could just assume everybody is doing the best s/he can, and leave it at that.

UTA: Ink has a good post up about student evaluations.