27 September 2011

Book meme

I got this from the Little Professor. But I’m answering these questions selectively—just those I had a strong reaction to.

1. Favorite childhood book?
Just one? Childhood lasts awhile, you know. Tastes and abilities change between 5 and 12. They change between 11 and 11 1/2, come to that. But if you insist, I think I was and am particularly fond of Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes.

2. What are you reading right now?
A blog, you silly person.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?
More than 60 books, on assorted medieval topics.

6. Do you have an e-reader?
Yes. It was a gift. I haven’t put anything on it in the, um, year and a half? that I’ve had it.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
Not since starting my own one. Since starting to read blogs, yes: I read fewer novels.

10. Favorite book you’ve read this year?
What is it with the favorites? I like different things for different reasons, in different moods and circumstances. It’s not as if I keep a pile of this year’s books around organized from top to bottom in order of how much I loved them. It’s not even as if I can remember what I’ve read this year or last year.

15. What is your policy on book lending?
Fuck right off! Put that down, now!

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?
In pencil, lightly. I find it difficult to write in books, even my own. Post-it notes are very common, though.

22. Favorite genre?
Again with the favorites. I am not such a simple character.

26. Favorite cookbook?
Get a grip! Depends on what I’m cooking.

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?
Depends on which critics (is this a “favorite” question in disguise?). I encourage grad students to get to know the works of scholars in their field so they’ll know whether they can count on their reviews. From some people, a bad review means I know I’m going to want to read the book.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose?
Modern language? I already read fluently in French and Spanish; with a dictionary I can get through Italian and German adequately. So I think I’d go for something more exotic, like Arabic or Japanese. Dead languages . . . I’ve made a couple of attempts at classical Greek, so it might be nice to get a shortcut to fluency there, but then again, if I’m taking shortcuts, I’d probably pick hieroglyphic Egyptian. Or cuneiform.

33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?
For the love of . . . listen, a book is an inanimate object. It’s not even a dangerous object, like a gun or a guillotine. I have never been intimidated by a book. And neither should you be. No one can intimidate you without your consent.

35. Favorite Poet?
W. H. Auden. Or Louise Labé. Or A. C. Swinburne. Diane Wakoski has her points. So does Charles d’Orléans. And Francis Jammes. I think I should go back to my “that’s too simplistic” stance on the topic of “favorite.”

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?
I decline to answer this on the ground that it may tend to incriminate me.

38. Favorite fictional character?
39. Favorite fictional villain?
Go away, I’m tired of these.

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?
Take. Unless you are currently on vacation, in which case you have indeed brought books, you will take a book or books on vacation.

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.
You mean, while I’m awake? I can’t read after an eye doctor has dilated my pupils for that one test they do . . . that may last 4-5 hours.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?
Comma splices.

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?
La la la la la. Not answering. You don’t want to know, anyway. But I’ll tell you this: two years ago I spent $250 on a single book and knew I had a bargain, though the people I was traveling with gasped when I answered their question about the cost.

55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading?
Why would you feel guilty about reading? This is like the intimidation question. Whoever thought this thing up has some psychological problems.

25 September 2011

On working when you can't

Another cross-post, this one directly from the comments on this week's check-in at ADNWG. I feel it's worth making this one more generally accessible.

When you are tired, ill, emotionally wrecked, or physically traumatized, but feel taking time off will put you so far behind that you’ll be even more stressed and tired, see if it’s possible to (a) make yourself more comfortable, and (b) work in tiny chunks.

(A) Sitting at your desk in a normal chair might be too much, but perhaps you can work in a recliner, on the couch, or in bed. Maybe even typing on a laptop is too much, but it might be possible to take marginal notes on a book, to be typed up later. Wear your owl pyjamas and fluffy slippers. Assemble pillows and heating pad (or ice water and fans, depending on the season).

(B) Then work in increments of 10-15 minutes, with 10-15 minute rest periods after each work session. Obviously this is not good for those big problems that need 3 hours of clear head time, but you’re not going to be trying to do those anyway when you’re sick/tired/traumatized. OTOH it is very possible to do half a day’s work in a full day by this work-rest pattern, reading, taking notes, grading, editing, writing half a paragraph at a time, and then you’re not so terribly behind. It is important to rest, really rest, between these little sprints, and not do things that will suck you into procrastination mode. Small household tasks (not a big clean-up project) are also appropriate breaks from the work if you have the energy. The point is to do something that does not involve a screen or a page.

And remember that the best is the enemy of the good.

What problem?

I've written before about the joys of teaching at a large regional university. And now I'm going to say it again: there are plenty of schools that don't have a drinking problem.

Most of my students work 30-40 hours a week. They live off-campus, with their partners, with their children, with their parents. A significant number are not just in-town though off-campus, but commuters from a good way away, just as I am. On weekends they're at work, or doing their homework, or cutting the grass and ferrying kids around, not at football games, not at frat parties. We do have fraternities and sororities, and I can believe there's some alcohol abuse on Frat Row. But I'm not seeing it: those students are majoring in something other than English.

My students have trouble, academically, for varying reasons: they went to bad high schools. It's been too long since they were in the classroom. Their baby had an ear infection and they haven't slept in days. Somebody else didn't show up for work and they had to work an extra shift. Although they're not working extra, they are working, and they only had 3 hours to work on a paper that needed 6. Their chronic illness isn't under control and they spent the night in the ER. Their National Guard unit was unexpectedly called up. Their anti-depression meds aren't quite right. And, sure, there is some ordinary not-getting-it-together, some bad study habits and time management skills, some garden-variety colds and break-ups, as well.

If a person goes straight from a pressure-cooker high school, overseen by helicopter parents, to an expensive college where paying tuition seems to guarantee a prestigious degree, and where students suddenly have a whole lot more freedom and independence than they're used to, then I can see why schools like Tenured Radical's might have this problem.

But it's not a big problem at LRU, and I wish people would stop tarring all "colleges" with the same brush. They vary by region, by mission, by student body and by culture, as well as by size and rankings.

24 September 2011

Now for something completely frivolous . . .

Should I get a pair of flannel pyjamas with owls on?

I usually sleep in a t-shirt. Or leggings and a t-shirt. Or half of Sir John's pyjamas with something of mine on the other half. I rarely am in a situation where anyone but Sir John is likely to see me in my sleepwear, so I don't feel any particular need to look even presentable, let alone matchy-matchy. Furthermore, I detest the pastel cutesy look of lots of women's nightwear. So I just don't buy any.

But these are royal blue, not pastel, despite the eyelet trim. And they have owls.

Then again, I toss and turn too much in bed for flannel to be a good idea—I'd wake myself up when the p.j.'s pulled against the sheets. I think I'm talking myself out of it.

But. Owls!

23 September 2011

Writing, pacing, sports metaphors and aging

As usual, posting about progress and goals in ADNWG makes me want to write a very long comment that I wind up bringing back to my own blog. I've got a decent draft of my fellowship proposal, exactly the right length, which probably means my RL writing group will suggest substantial changes that will mean a lot more editing to get it back to length. But at least that much is done.

It got done, as I predicted, mostly in a series of baby steps. Monday: 264 words. Tuesday and Wednesday: tiny bits of tinkering, a new sentence or two, a spot of editing. Thursday: combined the new framework with the old chapter descriptions. Today: wrote the 100-word abstract (98 words: I am awesome at writing to length), and edited the rest of it so it "flowed," in undergraduate parlance, and came to the right length. It's funny how (reluctantly) cutting a phrase that I feel really does a good job of expanding the implications of what I just said actually makes the argument spring up sharp and clear. So I came to terms with what I thought I was losing in nuance.

There's a lot more stuff to do with the proposal, what I think of as technical details: bibliography for the project, CV (do I have a reasonably up-to-date version in normal format, rather than the weird format required for my annual reviews at school?), a form to fill in that basically reproduces a lot of CV info. This seems like good "tired work," things to do on days when I'm low energy, or when I couldn't manage to work when I was really sharp and am trying to do something useful in the evening just so I keep moving forward. Or maybe, to introduce the sports metaphors, this is my yoga work.

In my more energetic moments, I will work on revising my most complete chapter into a good sample chapter. This, then, would be the more vigorous running or cycling.

For a brief period, I was a runner, and I loved it. But then I hurt my ankle, and ever since have been cautious about weight-bearing exercise. Swimming is good. Long walks seem to be okay. Elliptical trainers, stair climbers, and exercise bikes seem to be okay. Jogging . . . iffy. So my marathons, or triathlons, whatever, are virtual, done in the gym. All the same, for a long time I have thought about writing/research in terms of training, keeping in shape with the daily stint, even if it's a 20-minute walk or 2-sentence writing session rather than an hour on the elliptical or 90 minutes of writing.

My body has been recalcitrant for a long time. It's hard to frame this suitably: I've never had anything the least bit life-threatening, nor even anything so immediately unpleasant as migraines, and the only meds I take regularly are for allergies. But on the other hand, I've never been very tough, either. When ADM says, "My digestive system seems more sensitive. I can’t drink as much as I used to be able to—and especially not if I want to avoid a hangover," I think, well, I've never been able to drink enough to have a hangover: I get sick long before drinking hangover-worthy quantities. And my digestive system has been sensitive since I was around 13, and since my mid-30s I've had to be very careful about, oh, let's call them "lifestyle issues." What I mean is, skipping the gym or powering through the day on caffeine are both right out, for me. I have to exercise and do yoga every day, and I have to limit caffeine severely, in order to remain functional. In some ways, I have the body of a person much older than I am; but since I've been dealing with this for over 10 years already, the "normal" aging issues just aren't hitting me that hard. (Knock on wood.)

So this is why I, personally, insist on that little-bit-every-day thing. The body is no better at coping with insane schedules and ridiculous amounts of work than it is with running an actual marathon. The metaphorical sprint wasn't really my thing even as an undergraduate. I've never been any good at pulling all-nighters. Even when I write at the last minute, I've been thinking and outlining for a long time. I can come up with a sprint every now and then if I really, really have to—or maybe I mean I can run if I really, really have to—but the rest of the time I want to be on the elliptical trainer instead of stressing my ankles and knees. The physical consequences of overwork are, indeed, very real.

Certainly I have days that fill up with teaching and meetings. It would be easy not to write on those days. It would be easy not to exercise, too. But I know how awful I'll feel if I don't at least go for a walk and do some stretching, and I know how much harder it will be to start in again on the writing if I take 2-3 days off. And I know it'll be easier to get through the meetings and the classes if I do some "actual real work" in the morning, before all the rest of the world starts demanding things of me.

This may also have something to do with what people think of as "actual real work." I am a conscientious teacher and committee member, but I am not gifted at either teaching or administration. Research is what I love, the reason I'm here and not working as a tax accountant on the west coast. I don't get to do it full time, but if I didn't do it at all I would be very unhappy. I am, at best, at mid-career: maybe a bit later than mid-. If I'm going to do something about what I love, it has to happen now. Today, and every day. A sentence at a time. Love has to manifest as commitment.

19 September 2011

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!

16 September 2011


I've just reported on progress and commented about pacing to Another Damned Notorious Writing Group, but as usual, thinking about writing in one venue makes me want to pick up the theme elsewhere, as well.

The Shakespearean Heroine's middle-of-the-night drama meant that I had a couple of days this week when I didn't manage to write. First I was completely exhausted from being up most of the night, and just gave up on everything except meeting my classes that day. The next day I was still rather tired, and focused on exercise and catching up on non-writing activities, though I did round up a replacement letter-writer, so that at least moved the project forward.

I really like the goal of moving forward in baby steps every day: if all you can do is write one sentence and edit another, hey, that's a new sentence and an improved sentence, and you're keeping in touch with the project and what it needs, and it's infinitely better than nothing, and maybe tomorrow will be better.

Reflecting on turning a chapter description into a conference abstract: this was weird. The description was based on my Main Points and Thesis work. It had an argument. But the argument fit into the shape of the whole book* as it is currently planned. It did not stand alone. I re-wrote it. I didn't like it. I let it sit, and thought about what is special and useful about this chapter if you haven't read the rest of the book. The solution came to me while I was thinking and doing other things at the same time, which may be a first: I have never been one of those people who can work out problems while running or whatever. I need paper or a screen. But maybe the trick is to have a tidy problem to work on, which I feel I often don't. Anyway, once I knew where to start, the abstract was easy-peasy, and I liked that draft right away.

For the next couple of weeks I am not going to be able to work on the chapter that is my goal for the fall edition of ADNWG (Another Damned Notorious Writing Group, and that's the last time I'm writing that out in full). The book project is the base for a fellowship application, and I have to work on that and on a sample chapter, which chapter is going to have to be the most complete to date, in other words, the first one I wrote, back in July. I knew it would need revisions, and made notes to myself about what it would require (turn this section around so you lead with the discovered mini-thesis! and so on). But I blithely ignored a major textual controversy. Oops. I knew about it; but I was away from my books, writing from notes, and I didn't think it would prove to be so important as I now realize it is. It will make the chapter more interesting, but also more of a challenge to revise quickly. Probably I will continue to do a certain amount of finessing the topic, as in asserting that for this draft I'm just using MS Z and later I will explain the reasons for preferring Z to X and what the various claims of Z and X are.

Grading will commence. Class prep will continue. Committee reading will get heavier. I will keep feeding cats and exercising myself, and somehow the writing will get written.

*the whole book: how cool is it that about six weeks ago I was queasily wondering if this article might be a book, and now I'm casually saying things like "the shape of the whole book as it is currently planned"?

13 September 2011

And once again . . .

Why, when a cat has what we may euphemistically term a problem in the middle of the night, a problem that involves the humans' bed, is the alternate mattress pad always already awaiting its turn to be laundered?

12 September 2011

Some families

"Oh, God, if you could just see my brothers, you'd see what a refinement it is for you to spend time missing [your sister]. Christ, why do you all have such marvellous relatives and wives and husbands to worry about? Why didn't I have a few, just a few?"

Margaret Drabble, Jerusalem the Golden

09 September 2011

How mean am I?

My Chaucer classes seem to expect the worst. I assigned each of them a pilgrim, in the General Prologue, to read particularly carefully, get to know, report on, write a paper about, what-have-you. This is, I believe, a not-uncommon approach to teaching the Canterbury Tales.

Both sections (even though after the first I re-organized the way I presented the assignment to try to avoid this), both sections I say, seemed to believe I was assigning them to go off and read the pilgrim's tale. On their own. In Middle English. By next week.

Here I've been bending over backwards to introduce Middle English slowly, gradually, with lots of help and scaffolding, with little bites of text carefully analyzed to show them how it works. Why, why would I suddenly throw them into . . . not just the deep end, but the cold salt storm-whipped sea?

I doubt it's that they feel ready for scuba diving. They were worried about the quiz they had just taken. The quiz that was entirely based on the practice quizzes from class, which were posted to Blackboard, and which I had suggested they might want to review before the real quiz. I guess anxiety feeds on itself.

But should I keep trying to reassure them, or should I just revel in this apparent carte blanche to be the Mean Prof?

07 September 2011


I finished the not-so-small task and sent it off to another team member today. My thoughtful estimate of the time it would take (as opposed to my initial off-the-cuff and off-the-mark guesstimate) was exactly right. I thought I would finish and send tomorrow, and if I had stuck to my plan of how much to do each day, I would have . . . but when I finished this morning's stint, knowing I was so close to being done, I went back to it this afternoon. It feels good to get it done.

Since the reward for a job well done is another job, I'll have something else to work on in tomorrow's writing time. I am trying to clear out several tasks not related to the article-turning-book project, so I can focus properly on that. Soon, soon.

A question: when you ask someone to write a recommendation letter for you, how long is it polite to wait for an answer? I know this is a busy time of year. That's why, if people are going to say no, I'd like them to say it so I can give other people a decent amount of lead time. Is a week enough time to think?

05 September 2011

I can't leave it alone . . .

I'm always grumbling about things in the Wall Street Journal, usually (to be fair) items on the op-ed page. This time, it's a letter in Saturday's issue. And yes, I do feel like I belong in this XKCD cartoon.

The letter (in response to something about higher education that I don't remember) recounts the recent interaction of a college junior majoring in English with the old fart who wrote the letter. He said he was an English major 50 years ago, and his favorite author was Faulkner. "What did he write?" asked the college junior. The old fart was shocked, and did not ask who her favorite author might be.

The encounter was related, apparently, as an illustration of the Dire State of Kids These Days Higher Education.

Dude. She's a college junior. She's twenty, or thereabouts. How much of the whole of English and American literature had you read at 20?* Maybe she's heard of Faulkner but isn't quite sure she's not mixing him up with someone else and would rather ask than start talking about the possible mix-up. Some 20-year-olds don't like embarrassing themselves by getting something wrong. Maybe she's been studying British literature so far, and will get to American authors next year. Maybe if you actually talked to her about her favorites, and your favorites, you might discover a new-to-you author you might enjoy reading, and maybe you could even tell her what you like about Faulkner and get her interested enough to either take a class or read him on her own. But no, you have to get all huffy and write to the WSJ instead of thinking about the value of reading different things, and, you know, using your education to expand your mind and the minds of others.

*And if you try telling me you knew it all at 20, I am getting in my time machine and going back to quiz you about Piers Plowman.

01 September 2011

Like it? or lump it?

This week (so far) I'm doing better by research and writing than last week, and I'm not so tired. I've used tricks like setting up my desk the night before with the materials I will need in the morning, and leaving myself a note with precise goals to meet, and reading a little bit in some "inspirational" writing book in the evening, to psych myself up.

But, really, though I enjoy such books and have a fairly extensive collection, some of them must be taken with a grain of salt. Or maybe not taken at all. Paul Silva, for example, says at the end of his book, “Writing a lot will not make you enjoy writing or want to write. Writing is hard and it will always be hard; writing is unpleasant and it will always be unpleasant” (130).

Jeez, Paul, speak for yourself. Or even, if you must, for psychologists, though I have trouble believing everyone in the field feels that way. I enjoy writing. I want to write regularly, I get grumpy and anxious when I can't write steadily, and (within reason) the more I write, the more I want to write. I don't mean going on binges, I just mean that if I put in fifteen minutes, I want to go for an hour, and if I write an hour a day, I'm happier if I can get to two hours. I don't think I need more than that on a regular basis. Sometimes writing is hard, for me, but really the hard part is organizing and working out an argument, which I don't think of as writing, but as thinking. Producing words, once I know where I'm going, is easy and pleasant. Editing is enjoyable.

So the mild pleasure and interest that Boice advocates is my natural state. For me, then, if I "don't feel like" writing, or am procrastinating or anxious, it's a sign that something is wrong. And I think it is worth figuring out what the problem is, rather than ignoring it.

Often, though not invariably, my problem is time management gone wrong. Today, for instance, I had a lot of trouble getting started on what I thought was a smallish task I had been putting off for no good reason. Well, okay, it seemed that the reason might be anxiety that a co-writer would think I was stupid. But once I got started, I quickly realized that this is not such a small task. It's not huge, but it does need about 6 hours and is really three separate-but-related tasks, not a single one-hour piece of work.

As soon as I figured that out and had a plan to tackle the work in an appropriate way, all the anxiety vanished, and I happily got on with things. The problem wasn't really feeling stupid, or fearing my co-writer's opinion; that's just a sort of reflex to "explain" anxiety in a plausible way. At some level, I think I knew that my one-hour estimate was wrong, but I hadn't considered the matter closely enough to be consciously aware of how far off I was. The anxiety is a symptom, not the disease.

I know Z is with me on pacing, planning, and work as a pleasurable part of a life. Writing is not the problem. Other things cause problems with writing. Sometimes, as when my mother was very ill, there is nothing much to be done about the problem except push it aside during writing time. But with tractable problems, it seems to me much better to work out what they are and then address them, so I can get back to working contentedly.

Are Z and I the only heretics who think writing is easy and publishing is fun?