31 December 2009

Looking ahead

In thinking about the year ahead, I'm trying to think carefully about how I allocate my time. It's so easy to let teaching overwhelm me: it's obvious that the students need this and that, and I see them at least once a week, they're there, they have expectations. Scholars and editors are not on my doorstep, begging me for contributions; my colleagues don't ask how research is going; research doesn't create the same overwhelming pressures that teaching does. But let's do the numbers, thinking not about what I (or my colleagues) really do, but about what we get paid for: I'm on contract from August 15 to May 15, or for 39 weeks. In that time, we get at least five federal holidays; let's just call it five, for easy computation: 38 weeks. Assuming 40-hour weeks (which is after all the standard American work-week, though salaried employees don't get overtime and are supposed to just get the job done however long it takes), that comes out to 38 x 40 = 1520 hours.

I'm evaluated at 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% service: in other words, despite the beliefs of some students, state legislators, and others, research is a hefty chunk of my job. I'm supposed to put in 608 hours on it over those 39 weeks I'm on contract, and 608 hours on teaching. (And 304 on service.) At five courses per year, that's 121.6 hours per class, including face time, prep time, grading, and whatever else goes into a class. Classes meet 2.5 hours per week, over a 15-week semester, plus a two-hour final exam time: 39.5 hours of face time in the semester. That leaves me 82.1 hours to prep and grade for each course; allowing 10 hours of pre-semester planning (which seems like not enough, but never mind that for the moment), that yields less than five hours per week per class to grade, prepare, and hold office hours.

And let's not forget serving on M.A. exam committees and Ph.D. candidacy exams, which also count as teaching. I don't do those every year, but some years I have more than one such committee. I pick some of the texts, devise questions, consult with the other committee members, read the exams, meet with students who failed. Ten hours total? It's not a huge amount, but again, it's time not spent on the courses I'm actually teaching that term.

Grading alone usually takes a lot more time than five hours a week (on average). This is why most of us work at our research in the breaks between semesters, and why many of us let teaching fill our lives during the term. But I'm staring at these numbers, thinking that I should work out assignments that can be graded in the time I theoretically have available for grading, and spend 19.2 hours a week, over the next 19 weeks, on research, to reach my spring-term (2-course semester) quota of 364.8 hours.

I won't be able to do it. For one thing, time goes on a lot of other things that are work, but don't contribute to "production" in any of the three categories: reading and answering e-mail may have to do with any of the three, but answering a student's e-mail message decreases the time available for grading, as does walking a handout down to the office to be copied; sending a query about the availability of a manuscript contributes to future research, but it doesn't increase the word count on a conference paper; responding to a colleague's query may make the next meeting go more smoothly, but it doesn't make the meeting any shorter.

Research will get made up in the summer, as it always does. Still: I'm keeping an eye on these numbers as I plan my classes and my work schedule.

30 December 2009

The Year in Review (part the second)

So how has it been, really? Well, 2009 was an interesting year, with a lot of travel, some new experiences, a lot of time in the spring to think about research questions, a fall term that had no disasters; but the whole year was colored by my mother's death just before Christmas 2008. Various people said things about that event that were helpful in coping with it: It's a once-in-a-lifetime event, so don't be too hard on yourself; the death of a mother is a wound to the soul; we're lucky when we understand what's going on while it's happening and manage to show up for it; grief is ego. The last remark was quoting the speaker's meditation teacher, and everyone else in the room looked shocked, but it shifted and lightened the load I'd been carrying.

My chosen theme for the year was (re)creation, which may have been overly ambitious: it felt like what I was doing was hanging on or convalescing, not creating. And yet there were new or renewed experiences, many of them recreational, and a lot of reflection, all of which may yet bring about further changes, creativity and productivity.

I visited places I had not been before, or had not been in some years: mainland Mexico, New Haven, the Huntington Library, Cambridge (both), Exeter, New York City, Washington DC. I went on a cruise, I hiked in Mexico, I attended a Broadway musical and the New York City Ballet, I saw Leonard Cohen in concert twice. I reconnected with some old friends, one from college and three from graduate school; but another old friend seems to be slipping away. Life has its seasons.

During the spring term, I was on sabbatical, and while "real writing" (finishing an essay for a book collection; a couple of conference papers) felt like very hard, slow work, as I re-read my personal and research journals I see that I wrote a lot about ideas, things I was reading, plans for re-working the project that went bad, ways of tackling that new project: though this reflection hardly deserves the status of "rough draft," it is useful material that I can mine as I move forward with this work, and I am pleased to re-discover it now.

In August, I went back to the classroom (3 classes, 79 students), trying out a lot of new ideas and revisions. Some worked, some didn't. This integration of bibliographical research and literary study worked well for most (not all) of my grad students. Teaching close reading to undergraduates is still heavy going; giving out the pre-marked passages for analysis did not work very well, in the end. It may have helped some students, but others found it far too constraining; some simply couldn't see connections in the groups of words I selected (they might also have had trouble coming up with their own groups, of course). Teaching paleography in literature classes went better with the graduate students than with the undergraduates, I suspect largely because of the difference in class sizes. I was dismayed to be reminded of my undergraduates' limited vocabulary in present-day English: how can I teach them Middle English when they don't recognize modern words like bough, brood, clad, and other words that will not be glossed because they are not archaic? I was also dismayed by a graduate student who assured me that "however" is a conjunction and that "of you and I" is correct because "you and I" is a compound, although I felt slightly relieved when the student accepted my explanation that prepositions govern the entire phrase that follows.

The lived themes of the year, as noted in my personal journal, turned out to be place and friendship. I have a vexed relationship to my current place, and often wish to be elsewhere; I enjoy travel and exploration of new places; I feel very much at home in libraries, wherever they are. I had excellent visits with a lot of friends, experienced a disappointing visit from a childhood friend, and saw a number of ways I have failed in friendship towards someone I esteem. I picked up bad habits from my mother, who was a difficult and demanding person; it's hard to avoid behaving in ways one deplores when those ways are so constantly on display. But that part of my life is over; I am now free of both her bad example and the irritation and anxiety she used to cause me. I'll hope that this means better things for all of my relationships.

28 December 2009

The Year in Review (part the first)

I've cheated a bit on the first-sentence-of-the-month meme; in some cases, I've extracted a sentence that sums up the essence of the post, or altered punctuation. This is, however, my year according to the first post of the month. I'm planning a more thoughtful review of the year, as well, and a wish list for 2010.

January: Following Profgrrrrl, I'm picking a theme for this year rather than making resolutions: (Re)creation.

February: "Does that make us Satanists, if Basement Cat lives upstairs in our house?"

March: To show compassion is to take the high ground.

April: I used to be pleased at how much I'd changed since high school.

May: I spent yesterday evening in the company of Leonard Cohen and a couple thousand other fans.

June: So I'm supposed to be going to England in about a month, or maybe less, yet I still have not booked a flight.

July: I'm in my fourth library in a week. If this is Monday, it must be Cambridge.

August: So I recently read The Mysterious Benedict Society, which was good fun, and I'd recommend it if you like kid lit.

September: Like most of you, I'm suddenly plunged deep into the whirlpool of the semester (79 students and a whackload of committee work), so I don't have much in the way of personal musings or cute cat stories (hard to have cute cat stories when you're not home to observe the beasts).

October: Bloody Blackboard.

November: Well, yes, I do have ideas for more interesting posts, but no time to write them.

December: One evening, as I rambled / Among the trees and vines, /I overheard a young woman / Converse with Bradwardine.

22 December 2009

Getting lighter

Whew: made it to the Solstice and out the other side. Now I can look forward to the days getting lighter instead of darker, for six whole months. And the anniversary of my mother's death has passed, which also helps. In the past couple of days, I've even had a few faint intimations of Christmas spirit, enough to do some shopping and some baking, though I'm out of practice at baking. The cookies came out fine, but the cake was heavy as lead, and while getting out the cake-pan I broke a Villeroy and Bosch casserole.

There's not a lot to report around here. The semester's safely wrapped up, winter is truly here, and I've been spending a lot of time reading the Little Colonel books. Basement Cat is behaving unusually well. Really, this should have been an RBOC post, and I'm too lazy even to turn it into bullets.

08 December 2009

Do you know where your library cards are?

Yesterday I met with my writing buddy to work on our projects-that-won't-die. She noticed a call slip from the Cambridge University Library tucked into my research journal, and confessed that she, too, keeps such things to remind herself that she was there. We also like to use old M├ętro tickets as bookmarks, and are delighted by stray coins and other detritus of travel that turn up deep in pockets.

I also hang onto library cards, more deliberately. Obviously my local cards (LRU card, public library card) belong in my wallet. Once I return home, "foreign" cards live (are supposed to live) with my passport. I checked the stash this morning: CUL, Bodleian, British Library, Newberry, Huntington, Library of Congress, along with cards for photocopiers at Cornell and the University of Chicago. But where are my cards from the Folger and the National Library of Scotland? Being a little OCD (especially when the alternative is grading final exams), I went on a hunt. In an old purse (how do I get so many old purses? I don't think of myself as a woman with a lot of handbags), I found a stash of stuff, including my alumni association card (more or less a library card, for my purposes) and an oil-change card (one free for every so many changes) whose whereabouts I have wondered about for a couple of years. So that was useful. The cards I was looking for, however, remain missing.

Since all one's information is now in computer systems, I'm sure it doesn't really matter. And even if it did, my credentials have not changed. I can get a new card whenever I re-visit the issuing library, though sometimes having the old one does speed things up a bit.

But I would like to know where my missing objects are, and what company they may be keeping. While I was thinking about stuff-gone-walkabout, I turned up a measuring cup buried in a bag of kibble of a type no longer in use around here. Sir John said, "I bet you didn't sift through that bag well enough to be sure your library cards aren't in it."

05 December 2009

Looking a lot like Christmas

If I had my druthers, I would spend the entire month of December in Morocco. Or Malaysia. Somewhere warm where they don't celebrate Christmas.

I've never been a big fan of the winter holidays. OK, maybe as a really little kid. But once I was into my teens, Christmas tended to be dull: I'm the youngest by a lot, so my brothers and cousins were all gone, and I got to spend the day in sedate pursuits, being polite to grandparents and aunt and uncle (all much stuffier than my own family). It was a "family day," so seeing friends was right out. When I was in grad school, I didn't go "home" for Christmas. One year I went to a boyfriend's family. Other years I spent on my own, or with one or two other people who had nowhere to go. On one really fun year, several of us had a "Godfather" marathon, renting all three movies and spending the day alternating watching them and eating. Early job years were more of the same, until I met Sir John. He comes from a big family, so now I can be overwhelmed by all the people and noise on holidays.

Part of the problem is just that it's winter. I don't like winter. It's dark and it's cold. All the fairy lights, greenery and red bows are just a way of whistling in the dark, as far as I'm concerned, creating color and glitter in a world gone dim and chilly. I don't like the commercialism of Christmas in this country, don't like shopping at the best of times, and definitely not in the crowds that turn out in December. And then, after last year, on top of seasonal affective disorder, introversion, and general crankiness, I have genuinely melancholy associations with the holiday.

Sadly, Morocco---or even the Caribbean---is right out; our menagerie has complicated needs. So I'm trying to come up with some stay-at-home ideas for creating better associations with the holidays, this year. I haven't got much; my usual coping devices focus on ignoring as much of the hoo-ha as possible and concentrating on work, or engaging in mildly pleasant activities like wallowing in a hot tub with a fluffy novel. I'd like to make this the year of [something Special and Exciting], but I may default to behaving like an iguana, hunkered down between my full-spectrum lamp and a space heater.

Does anybody have suggestions of [something Special and Exciting]? Do you actually enjoy Christmas? Or are there some other iguanas out there?

03 December 2009


Thirty-five more papers to grade. Some symptoms have eased up, but my voice is totally gone, and periodically I cough so hard I think my eyes will pop out. I'm feeling very nostalgic for the cold a year ago that I was able to nurse with Six Feet Under episodes.

On to the papers. You may wish to start a pool on how long it takes for me to move from the hot-lemonade mix to straight whisky.

02 December 2009

Shameless chick lit bleg

Between the virus and the treatment (not to mention end-of-term-itis), my brain is not what it might be. I feel like reading trash. Recommendations welcome (keeping in mind that I have a strong preference for British chick lit and rarely like the American version).

In particular, I have vague memories of a book whose title and author completely escape me, but if it rings any bells for anyone (Laura? have you cleaned it out of your library recently?), do let me know. It came out sometime in the last 10 years; modern British setting; features a heroine possibly named Annie and a Scottish hero possibly named Alastair. He has a tumbledown castle and needs to marry money, pronto, and sweeps Annie off her feet in the belief that she has it. She doesn't. She actually prefers a friend of his, or maybe his brother. In the end, of course she gets together with the friend, or brother. There's a very romantic dinner early on; and a ball somewhat later; and a very cold trip to Scotland.

I can't believe I'm posting this. Blame it on the hot lemonade with whisky. And why don't I drink that when I'm not sick? Mmm. Maybe by the time you get around to naming that book I will feel better and be back to grading (yes, there's more) and reading about Gower and Henry IV, which is what I ought to be doing. I'm a sherioush shcholar, really. Mmm, lemmmonade. Sherious, I tell you.

If you're a colleague reading this, you're hallucinating. Really. Go back to your grading and when you come back I'll have poofed this.


One evening, as I rambled
Among the trees and vines,
I overheard a young woman
Converse with Bradwardine.

Her hair was black, her lips were red
As sacramental wine;
And he smiled to gaze upon her,
That wise clerk, Bradwardine.

She said, “Kind sir, be civil;
I know not canon law.
But in the common custom,
I fear you go too far.”

“Oh no,” he said, “Not far at all!
I’ll prove it to you so:
A college of philosophers
Will swear I’m nice to know.

“I’m searching for a Heloise
To match my Abelard.
I’ll give you private lessons;
You’ll find they’re not too hard.

“And if by chance you look for me,
Perhaps you’ll not me find,
For I’ll be in the chapter house:
Inquire for Bradwardine.”

And so at night, she followed him,
As monks sang their Compline.
There was the mirth and solace
For that sly, bold Bradwardine.

30 November 2009

. . . it pours.

Now I'm sick.

I'm blaming it on the cats.

28 November 2009

When it rains . . .

Thanksgiving weekend: 148 individual items to grade before Monday, of which 11 grad papers and 77 substantial undergrad assignments (72 items to go). Two sick cats, and associated vet visits: we very much hope this is a passing virus and not the Grammarian's kidney disease acting up, plus something unknown in the Scot; also that, if it is just a virus, that it does not get passed on to the others. One attempt to give sub-cutaneous fluids to the Grammarian, which was not successful. Two dead or dying laptops, both Sir John's, both work-issued, one new, with a major deadline looming.

We're having a high old time around here, I assure you.

27 November 2009

Call for papers: IMA/MAM

If you don't have anyplace warmer to go in February, allow me to invite you to the Illinois Medieval Association/Medieval Association of the Midwest conference at Dominican University, River Forest, IL. A friend of mine is organizing it, and you can visit the official website here; call for papers here. The theme is "The Ends of Romance," and although the original deadline for submitting abstracts has passed, the organizer assures me that there is still room on the program.

I will be there, and would like to contribute something; however, I am already committed to two different conference papers next spring, and the last time I did three in a semester I swore I wouldn't do that again. So I'm wondering about a round table about exile and/in romance: if this interests any of my readers, leave a comment or e-mail either Dame Eleanor or my real-life address, if you know me. (If you don't, come to the conference and discover the woman behind the mystery!)

An alternative idea for a round table is blogging. At the May 2009 Kalamazoo, I had to chair an in-honor-of session across the hall from the blogging session, so was tantalizingly close but completely unable either to attend or overhear. If anyone from that session would like to reprise it, again, let me know.

Traditionally, the IMA weekend is unseasonably warm and gets everyone hoping for an early spring, which then fails to appear. But at least the weekend provides a break from the usual winter weather. And hey, if you're a cat person, you can come over and meet the menagerie: how's that for an incentive? Basement Cat would love to co-opt some new servants of darkness.

26 November 2009


Any time I actually go to LRU's library, it will take me double the amount of time I think it ought to take in order to actually find what I'm there for. I resigned myself to this long ago, and in the past few years the average time has declined slightly, since if I need a book I can look up a call number faster in my office than on the library machines.

But tonight I'm trying to get a recent article online, at home, through the library database. I have obtained the exact same article twice before, at home, through the same database, and both times lost it to one of those damned "automatic updates" on my computer. I'm logged in, authenticated, the whole nine yards; but instead of loading, I get pages from the press or other institution wanting me to log in or pay. Have we lost subscriptions again, or are too many other people logged in (on Thanksgiving?), or what the hell? I am peeved. Next time I get the article, I will be sure to save it.

Um, yeah, of course I'm thankful to be employed and all that; but it really is annoying to have the library behave so capriciously. They're dumping all hard copies to which they have (they THINK they have) online subscriptions, so the trouble I'm having REALLY makes me gnash my teeth. It's the Franz Kafka Memorial Library: sure, you can get this article . . . if you pay for it, like any non-academic.

At least I managed to read half of it, last time I had it.


22 November 2009

Ways of seeing

I’ve been thinking since last summer about how I recognize people, and what I identify as important details, and how this relates to ability to recognize scripts or font details. Last July, I attended a conference where I knew about three people beforehand. A very large group—forty?—went out to dinner one evening, scattered over three large tables. I sat next to an organizer who was trying to check us off a list; she knew her old friends, but wasn’t sure who many people were. After just two days with these people, I was able to fill in everyone else for her, and she said, “Do you specialize in type fonts, or something like that? You’re so good at recognizing details!”

As I’ve said, I don’t think I have a very good visual memory, and I tend to pick out the wrong details in handwriting. If, in a year’s time, I was again in a room with the people from the restaurant, I’m sure I’d have trouble recognizing about half of them. What I do is pick out details that will let me recognize and name them tonight, tomorrow, next week: this one has a cloud of long dark hair, that one has glasses like my grandfather’s, another has a sunburn. When people are animated, I identify the one who has a lively, crooked smile, another who gestures with his chin in a characteristic way,

Of these, the smile and the gesture are probably unchangeable and will help me recognize their owners next year. If the hair is cut or dyed, the glasses changed or removed, I’m lost. Unless features are really distinctive—a big nose, a pursed mouth, heavy eyebrows—I look at a face and see “Two eyes, check; nose, check; mouth, check; all present and accounted for, in the usual order top to bottom.” I have a terrible time recognizing many of my students, who are mostly young enough not to have developed distinctive wrinkles, and who tend to dress and groom themselves so as to meet conventional standards of attractiveness. The rare Goth or punk is a blessing. I always know who has the dyed black hair or the green streak, but a row of pretty young blonde women confuses me. Actresses and dancers are the worst: Sir John is constantly amazed that I can’t tell the difference between Actress X and Actress Y, and I am equally astounded that he can, even when they have cut and dyed their hair and gained or lost weight for a role.

So there are two kinds of recognizable details: those that provide present recognition (blonde ponytail, black geometric haircut, heavy glasses, dark lipstick, noticeably thin or heavy body) are often not helpful in the long term. The long-term recognizable details are things like movement (I always recognize Sir John by his walk, long before he’s close enough that I can see his face), body language, facial features that are in some way more than “two eyes, check”: particularly protuberant or deep-set eyes, a nose that is unusually small, tilted, large, or bumpy, a mouth that is especially wide, pinched, or thick-lipped. It sounds as if it’s easier for me to recognize ugly people, and in a way that’s true: but I also don’t tend to experience “ugly” as unattractive, because that face with the non-standard features is one I can recognize no matter what has happened with hair, beard, glasses, and other changeable details. I also try to look for features other people don’t necessarily look at: length of neck, breadth of shoulders, hands. These may change, too, if someone takes up or drops a weight-lifting regimen, for example; but they are less subject to change than hair.

What has all this to do with paleography? Paleographers need to be able to recognize both general characteristics, the details that let you tell Beneventan from Luxeuil, Anglicana from Secretary, and also specific characteristics, the elements that distinguish Scribe B from Scribe D when they are both writing a regular Anglicana, or tell that Scribe B is Scribe B whether he’s writing Anglicana or Secretary. I think the general characteristics are analagous to the details that let you recognize someone tonight, tomorrow, next week: the roundness, spacing and clarity that announce Insular Minuscule are like the long blond hair and flowing mustache. When the scribe switches scripts, it’s no good looking for the characteristics of Insular Minuscule; it’s as if the young man shaved his face and head. You have to look for the features and body language, the approach strokes and tendency to use ligatures (or not), in order to identify the same scribe using a different script. And if you’re stuck at “two eyes, check,” then you may note the presence or absence of feet, while completely missing something important about the ascenders; you may notice, in one sample, that the lines and letters are well-spaced, and in another, that they are crowded and cramped, without seeing that the letter shapes are identical.

This still happens to me. I go for general appearance, just as I do at conferences (so I won’t embarrass myself by failing to recognize someone I was introduced to yesterday!). I can recognize a Secretary hand, no bother; but is the tight, controlled inscription on folio 20 by the same hand that wrote the sloppier entry on folio 50? I look at letter shapes, but does that really help? Of course Secretary is going to have that funky h. Nose, check; mouth, check. Is the tight, controlled Secretary inscription on folio 20, in English, the same tight, controlled hand writing the lovely little Gothic comment in Latin on folio 35? Well, I’m like the Terry Pratchett demon who says, “That’s handwriting all right. Curly bits, spiky bits—I’d recognize it anywhere.”

It’s not that I’m always so great at the general characteristics, either (certainly not when I was in grad school). But I think now I can diagnose at least some of my difficulties as category confusion. If you’re trying to look at specific individual details (broken nose, funky h whose descender makes an unusual forward-and-back jiggle) when all you need is big-picture, recognize-tonight characteristics (blond mustache, round minuscule letters), then there will be trouble. Some of learning to see is learning your own distinct and individual approach to seeing. I know I have trouble recognizing faces, so I put a lot more analytic effort into identifying people than would someone who “never forgets a face.” I know I’m not a natural at paleography, so I try to work out ways of compensating for my weaknesses. Overall appearance counts for something; but remember to look at a, g, s, r (both after a round letter and at the end of a word). Remember that you are easily fooled by a change in size, as at the beginning of a new stint: look again at the shapes.

Maybe this is why I enjoy (a weird, perverse and often frustrating sort of enjoyment) puzzling over English Secretary hands. Gothic book scripts are a bit like that line-up of beautiful young actresses who all have big eyes, small noses, kissable mouths. Lovely, all of them. If you look closely, there are small differences, but will you recognize A when she goes blonde, or B when she becomes a redhead? Secretary hands are like those non-standard faces where the eyes are too far apart, the nose too big, the front teeth crooked. Hello! You, I know. You’re the Secretary with the flowing T, and you’re the more upright one with the special jiggle on the h. I have no idea if either of you is responsible for the Latin comment, but at least I can tell you apart when you’re not wearing your glasses.

Politically correct Chaucer

I have a paper whose title refers to the Wife of Beth. I'm looking forward to reading it.

What's next? The Prioress's little clergeoun has two mommies? Virginius's roommate?

17 November 2009

Got better . . .

The update: the batch of papers is still present, but smaller, and I have come to a batch that were not groan-worthy. Also I devoted two hours to research today, and that made me much happier overall, and better able to tackle the grading in a charitable spirit.

I have to admit that I was not so much pushing forward with the research as consolidating my current position. I owe something to my writing group this week, and so I took the 3600 words I now have in the draft of my article on manuscripts and cut it to 2500 by taking out most of the notes to myself, questions to be filled in later, and so on. I now have a tidy-looking document, complete with endnotes rather than bracketed chunks in the text, that contains four clear sections of argument, with two more to come. (Bracketed chunks are one of my compositional idiosyncracies: when notes disappear to footnotes or endnotes, I lose track of them, can't format them properly, and have trouble deciding whether they should be integrated into text or not. I need to keep them visible until I've moved them in and out of text a few times, and formatted references suitably for notes once I've decided they can go there.)

Although I know there's still a lot of work to be done here (a bit more on the fourth section; all of a long fifth and fairly long sixth section; then revision, in which I know from past experience a lot of the conclusion will migrate to the introduction, and then have to be replaced), I feel very encouraged by the experience of seeing 10 pages of professional-looking essay. The argument is somewhat dispersed, but it is there (I'll let the group mark the sentences in part 4 that need to get assembled in the paragraph that introduces that section; I can see they're not in the right places, but they exist, and right now I'm just happy that they exist). I'm on the right track. Progress has been slow, but I have made progress nonetheless, even while teaching 3 classes and serving on a time-consuming committee (of which more anon).

And I want to note, for my own future reference, that grading is easier after I write.

14 November 2009

Grading whine

Most of these papers are so bad, and they're taking so long, and I know I'd get done faster if I kept my nose to the grindstone instead of reading blogs, but really, it's hard to keep at it when the papers are so bad, and I'm eating way too many chocolate-covered cranberries to try to keep myself in the chair, so I no longer even want chocolate. I practically gave the students a recipe for How To Write A Good Paper, and with half the papers in one section done, very few are following the recipe successfully. The best papers are from the double majors (English and Philosophy, English and History) which tells me something: not something I want to hear, but something I have suspected. And actually, in some ways this message is comforting: it's not Kids These Days, just those who major in what they think is a subject where you can get away with hand-waving and bullshit, and aren't sure what to do when they're given a recipe that does not include either one. But GAH. I have spent a beautiful November Saturday mainly indoors reading papers that make me want to lie on the floor groaning. And I still have 3/4 of the batch left to do. Please tell me that somehow all the worst papers are in this first quarter of those tackled. Even if you're lying to me. I need hope. I cannot go on. I know you're expecting a Godot-esque "I'll go on," but I'm giving up for the day and going to the gym.

The interesting thing is the in-class reflective writing I had the classes do on the day the papers were due. I asked them to reconstruct their thesis and argument from memory, and to write about how well they thought they'd succeeded at saying what they wanted to say, and what they would like help with or wished they had done better. Usually the thesis is better stated on the in-class paper, and they're actually quite aware of where their biggest problems lie. Maybe next semester I'll use this exercise in a required revision. But I have noticed before that my students are much better at getting to the point in class, on paper or in oral presentations, than when they have essays due. Is it paper vs. word processor? The need to say something, anything, NOW, rather than having time to tinker? Feeling that there's less pressure on the in-class writing, whereas essays have to be Formal and Perfect (and therefore become horribly imperfect)?

I'm going to go take out my frustrations (and work off the chocolate-cranberries) on an exercise bike. Tomorrow is another creep in this petty pace through the papers, or something like that. Maybe tomorrow I should substitute wine for cranberries.

13 November 2009

Not guilty

Bittersweet Girl has a question about hiring someone to clean the house.

Add me to the people who've done this for years, with no guilt. Even when I was single and had only one cat. I like my surroundings clean and neat (OK, non-toxic and with a good possibility of finding any given object), and I have limited time and energy, and I have far better things to do than argue with Sir John about who should do what. So we paint the housecleaning pink and slap a Somebody Else's Problem Field on it.

There's still plenty to do: laundry, cat boxes, dishes, picking up. I used to have a cleaner who was willing to do laundry and dishes. For awhile we had a service who wasn't. These things might be negotiable with the current person, but we've got used to doing them ourselves (and of all the housework tasks, laundry is the only one I like).

Guilt? Nah. Maybe because I did a lot of cleaning while I was in college (I had a friend who was an apartment manager: have you ever cleaned the oven of people who forfeited their cleaning deposit?), or because having help was one of my mother's aspirations for me, but before I could afford it I looked forward to the day when I could, and once I started hiring the job done, I decided I'd rather live on rice and beans than go back to doing everything myself.

It's a job. No shame in it. Do you suppose women feel that they ought to feel guilty about it, so in groups, they express guilt, even if they don't feel it?

10 November 2009

Nerd humor

I can't think of anyone in my real life who would be likely to understand what I've been snickering over this morning. So let's see if any of my readers get it.

Substitute "Bradwardine," as in Thomas (see, I just lost most of the people I know, but the medievalists are probably still with me), for "Reynardine" in the lyrics of Fairport Convention's song (how many of you just said "huh?"?).

"Oh no," he said, "no rake am I!"

Or adjust the lyrics a bit. "Seek me in my chapter house. Inquire for Bradwardine."

That sly, bold Bradwardine.

OK, I'll shut up now.

08 November 2009

Not dead yet!

Add me to the chorus of voices objecting to the idea that the library could possibly be dead. It got better!

I've just spent (can't bear to add up the number) hours putting together a library scavenger hunt for my students in undergraduate Chaucer. It involves finding out what's in particular ranges of call numbers, finding a hard copy of an essay that is not in J-STOR or otherwise available electronically, looking up people we read about in volumes of the calendars of Close, Fine, and Patent Rolls, studying pages of facsimile volumes, and using several reference works, two of which are not available electronically; one is, and I want students to write about the different experiences of using hard copy or electronic version. They'll work in teams, and each team has a different set of questions. In a week, we'll have a class discussion to put the jigsaw pieces together; as we used to say in the seventies, everybody has a piece of the truth.

On Friday, I took a quick non-scientific poll of my two sections, asking what they have done in the library. They study there; they get food in the cafe (and one works there); they use reference works; they have asked reference librarians for help; they go to the writing center; they check out books. Of electronic databases, they are most familiar with J-STOR, but some have used LION and the MLA database. At least one has figured out how to get articles not otherwise available via inter-library loan; I demonstrated for everyone else how you do that. All have used the OED, since I made them do that recently. I showed them a few other databases. I don't know how much they'll retain, but perhaps they'll remember to check out the database page again sometime.

One of the questions on the write-up of the scavenger hunt will be to propose a topic for a research paper that uses several of the resources from the hunt. They won't write the papers; I just want to see whether leafing through actual books will spark some creative ideas. One of the fabulous things about using hard copy is the serendipitous discoveries. When you go straight to quoniam, you miss quamquam and quisque.

Perhaps you thought, given my attitude to old Specula, that I'd be knocking the library over the head. But I distinguish between institutions and individuals; my floor space is more limited than the library's, and actually, after one of the comments on that post, I regretted not having made some effort to find a vampire bookseller (how?) in case someone wanted ten years' worth of Speculum. Personally, I can't bear to let the place where I live approach the state of my hoarder-dad's piled-up house, but professionally, I think it's important for libraries to hold on to hard copies of everything, even if they have to be stored off-site.

We'll see how the scavenger hunt goes. My students seemed enthusiastic at the prospect, though this may just be delight at having a change of venue for a week. I haven't done this with undergrads before. Grads in Introduction to Bibliography and Research Methods have hunts that combine electronic and hard-copy research. Some returning students need intensive instruction in electronic media; some younger ones need physical-library remediation; everyone complains about the parts they think aren't necessary. It's all necessary, I say. Anyway, I hope I haven't made the hunt too hard for the undergrads. As is so often the case with me, I'm after the serendipitous "aha" moments, hoping that even as two different questions on the list illumine each other and some literary issue from class, that there will be other discoveries that help with questions I never thought of, perhaps questions from other classes.

07 November 2009

I dreamed . . .

. . . that I had to finish my dissertation. In two months or less; I had to check on dates and make sure that my resident committee members would be around for the defense, and that one from outside the university could come for it. It almost didn't seem worth it, since I was already employed, and then I remembered that I had a job offer contingent on finishing, one for a better job than I have now. A 2-2 load, with a good colloquium series and high-powered yet friendly colleagues who would encourage me to do brilliant work. I decided I would work 8-4 every day, go to the gym after that, make the cats wait for their food and attention, bang out a shitty rough draft as fast as possible and then start filling in details and revising.

I'd like to know if I finished and whether the new job lived up to expectations, but the cat alarm went off. The loud one, not the gentle nudging and purring of the Scot or the heavy breathing of the Tiny Girl. Seriously, no one can sleep through the wails of the Shakespearean Heroine when she thinks it's mealtime.

So I guess I'm back to grading and tinkering with the last big assignment of the semester, instead of dissertating.

But maybe I'm trying to tell myself something about that book I'm supposed to be writing.

03 November 2009

Still a pedant

Well, yes, I do have ideas for more interesting posts, but no time to write them.

But listen: "moreso" is not a word. It's a mistake. You may have picked it up from your students, but that doesn't make it correct.

Stick with "more." "Moreso" makes you sound stupid, and using "I" after a preposition or as the object of a verb, even more so.

I mean, really, when I want a break from grading I'd like not to keep reading the same damned mistakes on the blogs of other college professors. What are they teaching people in graduate school these days, anyway?

29 October 2009

Sir John, for Halloween

funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures

Someone has turned my husband into a cat. And posted him on I-can-haz-cheezburger.

28 October 2009

More fun with the Wife of Bath

Quite some time ago, somebody (Bardiac?) asked for suggestions about teaching the Wife of Bath. Here's another one; as written, it requires familiarity with the Miller's Tale, too, but could be adapted to work with other tales, or just with WOBP characters.

In groups of 2-3, or working alone if a student prefers that, write a dialogue between a Miller's Tale character (Alison, John, Nicholas, Absolon, Gervase) and a WOBP character (WOB, old husband, 4th husband, 5th husband, friend Alison). Use as many lines as you can from the WOBP, to give the language an authentic flavor.

Students can choose their own topics, or use one of the following suggestions: advice (on dealing with husbands, wives, lovers); invitation to travel on a pilgrimage; debate on whether/why to re-marry, or remain unmarried; discussion of whether clerks are better than other people (better at tricks, or better as husbands/lovers).

Collect the dialogues. Pick the most legible ones, and call for volunteers (or volunteer people) to read them aloud: usually not the people who wrote them.

Then ask the class what they learn from this exercise.

It's very interesting to see what lines and characteristics really stand out in my students' minds.

24 October 2009

Takes one to know one

In a coffee shop this morning, Sir John pointed out to me a very small girl, in glasses, peering at an advertising flyer on one of the tables. "A scholar in the making," he said.

Her dad tried to get her to go with him to order something. "No!" she said, clinging to the flyer.

"She has the temperament," I said.

Awhile later, she wanted to leave through the front door. Her dad said, "No, we're going out the back, because our car's in the garage."

"Definitely a scholar," I said to Sir John. "She doesn't remember where the car is."

We went out the back too. But I forgot which level we'd left the car on.

22 October 2009

Blogging the lost

I'd like to find some things that have gone missing.

Probably Basement Cat finally got his mitts on my cubic zirconia earrings. But what in the world does he want with my Pearl Jam CDs?

Updated to add: and the billed hat I wear to keep rain off my glasses . . . where has that gone? I cleaned the coat closet, but it's not there.

Updated again: the earrings were in Basement Cat's room. I think I took them off one day when I was napping in there. CDs and hat are still missing.

15 October 2009

The other Basement Cat

Basement Cat has a split personality. We have Bitey BC and Purry BC. Usually we get Bitey BC.

About half an hour ago, as I was finally about to leave for the gym, Purry BC showed up and got in my lap.

So I'm still trying to find things I can do without getting up. Can't waste the opportunity for quality time with Purry BC.

13 October 2009

Midterm cheers & jeers

It's that time, isn't it? Most of the blogosphere is complaining of Ms. Mentor's October Exploding Head Syndrome. Yesterday I was feeling a tiny bit smug, because I planned this week (the 8th of our semester) to have no undergraduate papers coming in, and very little class prep. I can catch up on the stray papers that came in late that I haven't got to yet, deal with a handful of stuff for the grads, do a little research work, tinker with upcoming assignments, and take a couple of deep breaths before tackling the second half of the term.

Ha ha ha. There's this committee I'm on . . . . I'm sure you can see the punchline coming. My inbox is full of stuff to read and revise in the name of service.

It's a lot like being overwhelmed with grading, only the writing is that of my colleagues, and every time I think I have a good grading rubric, a different set of colleagues says no no no, that rubric won't work, re-do it.

Love you all madly, now go away and let me think about Gower and Henry IV.

08 October 2009

Back on the literary front . . .

I'm supposed to be ordering books for my spring classes, which means I should know what texts I plan to teach. Of course I don't know. I have a long list of things I'd like to teach, which needs to be cut down to what we can actually do in one semester, during which my students have other classes (and I have two conference papers to write and give).

In spring, I'll be teaching Arthurian Literature to upper-division English majors. I usually avoid anthologies, and tend to prefer to teach whole works (or large chunks, such as the Arthurian section of the Brut). But I'm thinking that I would like to teach some smallish excerpts from Spenser's Faerie Queene: Merlin's prophecies from Book III, and the cantos from Book I in which Prince Arthur first appears.

Will this work, if I provide plot summaries for the rest of Books I and III? Or is it too in medias res for students to cope with? Sometimes they seem to prefer the whole-book approach, even if it's something like Spenser with archaic language. Those of you who teach surveys and excerpts, please comment!

06 October 2009


Yesterday my grad class met in the library, and looked at facsimiles of three Canterbury Tales manuscripts and Caxton's edition. I'd made up a worksheet for them to fill out, things to look for in each book, and sometimes hints about where to find them. They worked in groups, 3 students on each book at one time, and every 15 minutes moved on to another one. I wandered around the table, taking questions, dropping hints, listening to discussion. They were enthusiastic, interested, intent.

And then we met as a big group to discuss findings, and discussion suddenly flagged. I wasn't sure if it was just the late hour, or what. After class I asked one student, someone I've taught before, what she thought. She thought a lot of the problem was that they're not used to looking at manuscripts and it's hard to remember what you saw in each one; it's clear when the page is in front of you, but not later on.

That made perfect sense to me. I should have remembered what that stage is like. Now I have a better idea of how to guide students in taking notes on manuscripts that will help them re-visualize what they saw.

I don't think of myself as having a good visual memory. It's certainly not photographic. Sometimes I retain information via placement (top of the left-hand page), but that seems to be spatial perception rather than visual re-creation; and I don't always file information that way; and sometimes I think I have but I'm wrong. One of my brothers is red-green colorblind, and the other sees those colors but has trouble processing information involving them. Though I'm certainly not colorblind, I don't have accurate color memory. In my graduate paleography course, I always focused on the wrong details, the ones that don't tell you much, that appear in half-a-dozen different scripts or are a standard feature of a given script rather than the tell-tale identifier of a particular scribe.

But apparently, over time, through sheer persistence, I have trained myself to have a better memory for manuscript pages than I thought. There are a handful of manuscripts (or facsimiles thereof) whose general "look" I can summon up fairly accurately, and a few more whose pages I recognize when I see reproductions. I'm happy to be able to see how I've improved, because I've been struggling with this graduate-school-era sense of my abilities for a long time. And I'm really happy to feel I have some idea of how to teach this skill, that it is a skill that can be learned and not simply a talent that one either has or doesn't.

03 October 2009

s. . . l . . . o . . .w . . . .

Bloody Blackboard. I don't remember it being such a pain in the patootie in past semesters; before sabbatical, I thought it was great. Save a tree! Zip through grading electronically! Now it's slow as mole-asses (compared to the asses of hares, or housecats at top speed), and it is taking forever to upload files with comments, grade quizzes, and update various things.

Earlier in the day I was quite happy to set up on the couch with two laptops (the one I work on and the orange furry one who prefers to have his screens closed, and doesn't like being typed on), and read the rest of the grads' papers. They were mostly pretty good. And the good news is that I'm done with that set of grading. There was even a stretch of uploading comment files when Blackboard was fairly speedy. But the couch-with-laptops routine gets old when you've been at it for 6 hours altogether.

The bad news . . . I can't bear to list all the stuff that remains to be done for the undergrads. Let's put it this way: nine different items should be multiplied by 30 to 35 (though some of these are simpler than others, like updating attendance records). Two of the items involve papers; two more involve quizzes, though I've done 8 of the quizzes (so multiply by 25). And Blackboard is not helping me speed through this.

Speaking of housecats at top speed, Basement Cat has been behaving quite well lately. It makes for fewer good BC stories, but for much better feline relations. He and the Grammarian even spent awhile dozing near each other on the couch this afternoon; the Grammarian used to hate BC's guts, while BC just could not leave the Grammarian alone. Oops: BC just came upstairs with the drain strainer from the laundry sink. Perhaps Sir John has a point about keeping him out of the basement. It seems sort of like unusual punishment.

There is other good news this week: I got into the workshop at Famous Library. And I had an abstract accepted for a conference Abroad next spring. The conference paper is supposed to be a section of the New and Improved Book Project. Lots of writing to come . . . if I can just get outside of the grading.

29 September 2009

Another riddle

Why is learning to be a medievalist like going back to kindergarten?

Because you have to learn to read all over again. Letters are strange shapes, easily mistaken for one another; you struggle with the alphabet. And there's a lot of cutting and pasting as you make alphabets of scripts.

I started my graduate Chaucer course on this process yesterday, giving them a facsimile of the opening folios of the Chaucerian Text of the Week, along with an alphabet I made up for them (there went any chance of grading yesterday). "You were lucky," I said at the end of class; "when I was in graduate school, we had to get up at half-past two to make up our own alphabets, before cleaning the bottom of the lake with our tongues."

They did quite well, considering it was their first time looking at any medieval script. I made them work with books closed, though they had read the text in our edition. When they didn't know what to do with a word, they moved on, and came back when they recognized more letters. They learned to use rhyme to help recognize letters at the ends of words. They learned about the similarities of u/v/n. During their first attempts, I went around the room making suggestions to each pair ("That's two letters . . . What other letter looks like n? . . . You had this word in the first line . . . That's not e; what letter looks like e, in this script? . . . Look at the shape of the letter: does it extend above or below the line?"). At the end of an hour, each student was able to read out several lines, going around the room, one line at a time, even when they wound up reading at sight, not having got that far in their pairs.

I am pleased with their progress. And so, since the reward for a job well done is another job, each of them got a page of Hengwrt to play with before next week, when we will meet in the Rare Books Room to look at all the CT facsimiles my library can come up with. I hope they'll make their own alphabets.

It was instructive to see the kinds of errors they made, too. An important part of teaching is being able to anticipate trouble, and learning how to ward it off, to avoid student frustration. I should remind student paleographers that rhyme is their friend, and that it may be easier to begin with longer words rather than short ones. As usual, good vocabulary helps with everything: if you don't remember that sweven means dream, it will be hard to recognize sweuynys when you see it.

I no longer remember my initial attempts at paleographical transcription with any clarity. It was during my second year of graduate school, a time of considerable personal turmoil; and in any case, we studied Latin paleography, beginning in the classical period and giving very little attention to anything after the twelfth century, which is about when I come in. The history of letter shapes was certainly useful, as was learning the commonest abbreviations (and how to use Capelli); but applying what I learned in class to my own research, later, was a bit like learning classical Latin and then being turned loose to deal with medieval Latin---or maybe I mean proto-Romance---on my own.

And so starting students directly on vernacular paleography from a late period means there's nothing from my own schooling that I can re-use. I can only follow my instincts: work on something directly relevant to their studies. Do transcription in class, both to demonstrate that this is important (worthy of class time) and to teach how to go about it. Start with the hands-on time with facsimiles, and fill in history and theory later, if there's time, after students have discovered for themselves the questions that the history and theory may answer.

I'm not really sure how this work fits into the education of, say, someone who intends to specialize in 19th-century American literature, or 20th-century Caribbean poetry. But the point of education, surely, is that it does not need to be immediately and directly relevant. If it is, it's vocational training. I suppose that's what paleography is for me! And certainly one of the things I love about it is that it is concrete, with clear applications, and there are right and wrong answers. But looking at the variability of medieval manuscripts is a way of approaching literary-theoretical issues, as well: mouvance, for example, is not an abstract concept for medieval literature. Any given scribe is a reader responding to a text.

I wish I could provide my students with access to real manuscripts, not just facsimiles. I had very mixed feelings, last summer, when I heard talks about Otto Ege's biblioclasty. All my training makes me recoil in horror from dismembering even an already-damaged book; a mansucript need not be perfect to convey important information about its use. At the same time, I sympathize completely with the urge to get manuscripts, even fragmentary ones, into the hands of as many people as possible. I cannot condone biblioclasty, but I really wouldn't mind if my university owned an Ege portfolio.

But if facsimiles and digitized manuscripts is all we have to work with, then we'll work with them, and hope that some of my students will someday get their hands on the real thing.

27 September 2009


Amid the pressure of having assigned a lot of material to grade (what was I thinking?) and serving on a committee with a heavy workload, I am rediscovering the pleasures of crossing things off a list of items to do.

Friday I got up at 5:15 to start grading papers from one section, which I managed to hand back at 11:00.

Today I have successfully avoided grading the grad students' papers (what was I thinking?) in favor of crossing off a whole batch of Life Stuff items: re-potting house plants, ordering two different sets of tickets online, ordering new swimsuits online (I usually try to hit local early-summer sales to stock up, but didn't manage that this year, and I'm on my last suit: if you spend as much time in the pool as I do, they only last about 3 months), ordering a pair of trousers online, beginning to tag old posts, talking to a neighbor about possible roof problems and window replacements. It doesn't sound like that much, but all this took me about 4 hours.

Tomorrow may be awful, but it makes me feel good to get some of these things crossed off the list. Many of them have been on it for a long time, and most of them are things that will Stay Done (unlike grading---what was I thinking?).

24 September 2009

Teaching close reading

I think it's important for students to learn to read closely, to notice word choice and tone, the ways words interact with each other to create images and other literary effects. I can't tell you how many times I've asked in class, "What's the general feeling of this passage?" and everybody says, quite accurately, "Sad!" or "Joy!" or "Skeptical!"

Then I say, "And where does that feeling come from? What words create it?"

. . . . .

. . . . .

Even the crickets are silent.

So I teach them to figure this out. Over the years, my instructions got longer and more detailed, as I tried to include all the advice that various people had found useful, until the instructions were as long as the paper I was asking for. (2 pages, that's all.) Clearly that is overwhelming.

Here's how I've cut back, this year. Instead of explaining the process in detail, I've short-circuited it by doing some of the work for them, in a first close-reading assignment. I pick the words and phrases I think should get attention, and ask the students just to do the analysis of how they work. In a second assignment, I will underline just one set of words, and ask students to find two more sets that go together. Here's what the first assignment looks like:
Virgine, that art so noble of apparaile,
And ledest us into the hye tour
Of Paradys, thou me wisse and counsaile
How I may have thy grace and thy sucour,
Al have I been in filthe and in errour.
Lady, unto that court thou me ajourne,
That cleped is thy bench, o fresshe flour,
Ther as that mercy evere shal sojourne.

Read these lines several times, carefully. Notice that some words are underlined, some are italicized, and some are in bold. Some words belong to more than one group.

Write a one-to-two page essay (250-500 words), with a clear thesis statement and examples from the text, explaining the importance of these groups of words in this passage. Use the following questions to help you organize your paper:

What does each group of words have in common? What images do they invoke? Which words are concrete? Which words are abstract? Look up all the words in one group (your choice) in the MED or OED: what languages do they come from, and at what period? (In other words, are they learned French or Latin additions to English, new in Chaucer’s time, or are they older words that come from the native English word stock?) What do the word choices contribute to the tone of the passage? How do these lines fit into the surrounding context of the poem?

In this example (not one I actually used this time), the words I have selected as important have courtly, religious, or legal connotations; some of them overlap in significance. It's up to the students to figure out these connotations and how they interact, and to devise an argument, and to support it adequately. Instead of telling them how to find the most meaningful words, I've done that for them, so they can get on with the writing, rather than taking so much time in the planning.

Later, there will be in-class group work focusing on the planning stages (what words do you think are really important? are there synonyms or other thematically related words in this passage? etc.). By the end of the semester, I hope they'll be able to take a passage, find the words that create that sense of sadness, joy, skepticism or whatever, and write an essay about it, with minimal prompting. But we're working up to that very slowly.

Results on the first paper varied. Some just answered questions, without giving a thesis statement. That was a problem for their grades, but even working through the questions teaches you something about this skill. The best students found this assignment fairly constraining, so to anyone who came to office hours to complain, I explained my reasoning and assured them that they would face fewer constraints as the semester wears on. I'll continue to tinker with this, as one does, but in general I'm happy with results. Given the parameters of the assignment, no essay was breathtakingly brilliant, but most were competent.

So if you'd care to adapt this approach for your own use, feel free!

22 September 2009

Ancient History Job

A friend asked me to publicize this position.

The Department of History at Northern Illinois University invites applications for an anticipated tenure-track assistant professorship in Ancient Mediterranean History beginning August 16, 2010. Ph.D. required at time of appointment; teaching experience preferred. Ability to teach upper-division undergraduate courses in Ancient Greece, Ancient Near East, and Ancient Rome; survey course in Western Civ to 1500; and graduate courses in area of expertise. The department and the university are committed to the principle of diversity and encourage applications from candidates who can contribute to this objective. Send letter of application, C.V., official transcripts, three letters of recommendation, teaching portfolio, and a chapter-length writing sample to Professor Nancy M. Wingfield, Chair, Ancient History Search Committee, Department of History, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL 60115. No electronic submissions please. Review of applications will begin on October 30 and continue until the position is closed. NIU is an AA/EEO Institution.

15 September 2009

Brothers and devils; or, personal/political

"Emperors per se did not unnerve Miles . . . . Emperor Gregor had been raised along with Miles practically as his foster-brother; somewhere in the back of Miles's mind the term emperor was coupled with such identifiers as somebody to play hide-and-seek with. In this context those hidden assumptions could be a psychosocial land mine."
Lois McMaster Bujold, Cetaganda

When I read Dr. Crazy's post about dealing with a mostly-male committee, along with its comments, and then reflected on my own experiences, I realized that these hidden assumptions have an enormous influence on how we respond to people. In situations such as Crazy describes, I tend not to even notice what's going on.

You see, I grew up with two older brothers—a decade older—who saw it as their job to toughen me up. I often think that the most lasting result of this toughening was to leave me reluctant to spend much time with my brothers, or men like them. (Sir John is a different breed entirely.) But on reflection, they had a considerable effect on me. From the time I was about five, and allowed out of our yard if I was with a brother, I tagged along as often as I could. I played in a lot of softball games with whatever neighborhood kids could be scraped up, usually boys 5-10 years older than I was. I climbed trees, waded creeks, built mud castles, and got dragged up and down hills that were beyond my strength, sometimes getting piggy-backed home.

Now, because of the brothers and the pick-up softball games, when I'm in a room full of men who are behaving like guys (jockeying for position, baiting each other, and so on), I shift into a similar mode. They push, I push back, and pretty soon we all know where we are. Even reasonable men adopt this mode from time to time, sometimes in response to less reasonable men starting it. I once served on a mixed committee (chaired by a man) for a year, no trouble, and then at the end of the year, I headed an all-male subcommittee. When we were left alone for the first time, considerable wrangling ensued, bypassing my input entirely—until I pounded on the table and shouted. After that, things went smoothly again. But I didn't think about how to handle it; I didn't take offense, either. I just did what seemed obvious, and which probably is obvious only to women who have had similar early training.

I have observed that women who have spent a lot of time in male-dominated professions tend to learn how to push back effectively, no matter what their family constellation was. I have also noticed that of my close women friends, almost everyone is from a female-dominant family, most often without brothers. So I don't think the push-back mode is my preference, even if I can do it without thinking when it seems called for.

My brothers teased and tormented me, but the result is that it's very hard for anyone else's efforts at insults and intimidation to get through to me. When I bought my first condo, the developer's lawyer was a nasty piece of work who thought, at the closing, that he could bully me into not pursuing various issues. He sneered at me, and I listened politely and ignored the ad feminam attacks. He yelled at me, and I sat back with an expression that indicated I was trying not to laugh in his face. He finally gave up, unclear on why he wasn't getting his way, and I got mine. I did notice what was going on, but I didn't feel insulted.

Even more important than the fact of having brothers is my family position. I am The Little Sister. When I'm the only woman in a room full of men, I know (in the back of my mind, one of those deeply hidden assumptions) that I am The Mascot and I can get away with anything! So it never occurs to me that anyone is expecting me to keep my mouth shut and be good. In a fundamental way that has absolutely nothing at all to do with current social reality, I know that my brothers will defend me against all non-relatives and Mom will protect me when my brothers get out of hand.

I'm pretty sure I'm not bratty to my colleagues, and I would hate to be called on any of these assumptions, because there's nobody around to beat people up on my behalf any more. But that early psychosocial training has certainly affected the attitude I project. Though I haven't picked up a bat in decades and hope I'll never swing one again, "senior dudes," in my mind, go with such identifiers as "people to play softball with" (sandlot softball, not the tame kind with coaches). Occasionally this is a land mine. Mostly it seems to make life easier.

So credit where it's due: my brothers' efforts to toughen me up were not all bad.

07 September 2009

Review, having finished the book

I think how a person feels about The Magicians might depend on how that person feels about Narnia. The main character, Quentin, and most of his friends read their version of Narnia (called Fillory) when they were kids, and some of them seem to have remained quite attached to it. At first I took Fillory more as a stand-in for Any Fantasy World You Once Loved, but in the second half of the book I started to think that the Narnia-ness of it actually mattered. And while I enjoyed the Narnia books as a child, whenever I figured out the Christian allegory (about age 11, I think), I went right off them. I still have time for Lewis as a scholar, but I do not care for his fiction. I waded through all the Silent Planet trilogy, in my late teens, because someone I thought well of recommended them, but I thought they started out bad and got worse.

I have no interest in debating whether or not Lewis could write fiction—de gustibus non disputandem est—but I am curious as to what a Narnia-Lover would think of Grossman's book, so if you fall into that category and have read The Magicians, let me know.

[09.19.2011: It is no longer the case that the rest of my thoughts will appear "below the fold," because something's gone screwy with the HTML so I just took it out. I hope that by now anybody who would have minded the spoilers has read the book.] I can't explain what I didn't like without spoilers. What's more, I can't make sense of the book without getting all English-professor-y on its ass.

We meet Quentin as he's about to take the entrance exam for a college of magic; part of what entices him to do so is having a brief encounter with what purports to be a sixth Fillory book, when there only ever were five that anyone knows of. However, it disappears before he can read it. During his years at the college, he periodically re-reads the Fillory books, thus filling readers in on their plots: English kids, a grandfather clock, talking animals, not-too-threatening villains, animal-gods who send the kids back at the end of each set of adventures, you know the drill. College is good: learning magic is very hard, but Quentin makes some friends, attracts a lover (Alice, a super-smart young woman), and passes some seriously hairy exams. The first half of the book worked, for me. There were some obvious Plot Points to Be Developed, like the missing Fillory book, the Girl Left Behind, the Beast (a Terrible Invasion from Another World, when Quentin plays a prank during a lecture), and the Mysterious Death of Alice's Brother. But that's okay; I know that if there's a gun on the table in the first act, it'll get fired in Act III. Anticipation adds to the fun.

After graduation, it's all downhill. Quentin and his friends don't seem to know what to do with themselves, except move to New York and do drugs. Even brilliant Alice hangs out with these losers instead of going to Glasgow for graduate school. (Alice, darling, men are like streetcars; there'll be another one in ten minutes if you just dump Quentin. Quite possibly one with a fabulous Scots accent! Well, there's no telling a 21-year old such things. They just say you're a cynical old bat.) Then one of their not-exactly-a-friends turns up with a magical button that can take them to Fillory. Yes, one of The Magical Buttons that were thoroughly hidden at the end of the fifth book. Not peyote buttons. Just to thicken the plot, Quentin cheats on Alice and then she cheats on him, so everybody can be thoroughly distraught and distracted, and see Fillory as some sort of magical happy potion that will solve all their problems. (The cynical old bat says: wanting to sleep with someone else is Nature's way of telling you it's time to break up. Get the break-up over with first. Can't face it? Okay, then don't sleep with the other one. Grow the fuck up.)

Eight people from this world go to Fillory and have harrowing adventures. Bad Shit Happens. It's all because the Beast (remember the Beast?) is actually one of those English kids from the stories who figured out a way to stay in Fillory. It involves unsavory magical practicies, and he's after Quentin and his pals because he (the Beast) needs to collect all those Magical Buttons so nobody can ever make him go back home. This is significant: apparently staying in Fillory makes you into a monster. Okay. Alice sacrifices herself to save the others, killing the Beast; Quentin is seriously injured and passes out.

Six months later, he comes out of his coma, still in Fillory. The others hung around for a couple of months and then left him. The mysterious sixth book of Fillory turns up again; as he reads it, its author, the youngest of the English kids and sister of the Beast, appears in Quentin's room, so they can talk over what happened. Thanks to a time-travel device, she has been trying for a very long time to kill her brother; every time she or her minions has failed, she undoes everything. This is the only time he's ever wound up dead, so she's not willing to go back and try to make it so Alice survives. She breaks the device. Quentin goes on a quest to find the magic beast that can grant a wish and send him home.

Back in this world, he plans to renounce magic. Uh-huh: then why accept a job through the magical school, even if it's in a big corporation? I mean, if you're going to renounce magic, go whole hog and get an accounting degree from Large Regional U, instead of surfing the internet and collecting a paycheck for doing it in an office in a suit instead of at home in pyjamas. He meets the woman who was involved in the Mysterious Death of Alice's Brother; she thinks Magic is Evil. Quentin can't quite agree.

And the next thing you know, two of his friends from the ill-fated Fillory expedition turn up, along with the Girl He Left Behind, and say they're going back, does Quentin want to come? Yeah. Yeah, he does. The End.

And I said, "What?"

I don't get it. Fillory was awful. The talking bunnies were violent. They had to be killed. And while it's bad enough killing nasty orcs, killing oversized talking bunnies is worse, in my view. Apparently wanting to stay in Fillory, or at least doing what it takes to allow you to stay, turns you into a magical monster. Alice died there. Another guy lost his hands and can no longer do magic. Any sensible person would never want to see the place again. It's not as if there's any hope of restoring Alice, or fixing anything else. They just want to go to Fillory and be kings and queens there. In my view, graduate school would be a much better option.

So what's going on? I have two theories. One is that the ending is "about" the powerful pull that fantasy literature has on its fans; given the opportunity to leave the ordinary world for the fictional one, they'll go, no matter how marvellous their real lives (even if they're powerful magicians!), no matter how awful the fictional world turns out to be. This makes the book a cautionary tale.

The other is that the ending is "about" the powerful pull of Christianity: no matter how atheistic and sophisticated people are, given the chance to enter a Christian orbit, they'll do it. I can't tell if this makes the book cautionary or celebratory. Sir John points out that it seems a bit odd for a writer named Lev Grossman to take the celebratory point of view, so maybe it's cautionary. (I never put too much stock in people's names. I used to know a Filipina called something analogous to Christmas Feinman, okay? You just never know.)

Anyway, there is a minor character, a practicing Christian magician, who is one of the few people with any sense; he helps Quentin's pals prepare for the trip to Fillory, in practical terms, stays out of the doomed expedition, and turns up (after Quentin passes out) to get everybody else out of the maze they were in. This makes Christians look like the good guys, or at least, like the sensible, responsible grown-ups. Moreover, the fantastically irritating animal-god (a ram, get it?), who keeps telling people that there are things beyond their understanding (I cheered when one of Quentin's friends said she'd heard just about enough about her understanding, thank you), does say two wise things before the Beast kills him: one, that Fillory is not a theme park for the Children of Earth to dress up and play with swords in, and two, how can Quentin expect to save Fillory when he can't even save himself? Alice has said similar things to Quentin at various points, so this seems to be a theme in the book.

But I suppose it could be along the line of even a stopped clock being right twice a day: everybody from Alice to the the ram-god is telling Quentin the same thing, and he still doesn't want to hear it.

Maybe it's just supposed to be a dark fantasy where there are no good guys and nobody wins. Well, that's not what I read fantasy for. And I sure don't want to have to get all English-proffy on my brain-candy's ass in order to make sense of it. Indeterminate endings work fine for lit classes, if that's what floats your boat, but when I read for fun I want a clear-cut happy ending where good triumphs. If Narnia and talking animal-gods are bad, boring, unsophisticated, whatever, then let's have Quentin & Co. grow up. If they're good, then let's have them take Fillory and its problems seriously.

Maybe this is a weird homage to Narnia from someone who enjoyed the books as a kid and then, though Jewish, found they were Christian allegory and that really screwed him up. Maybe.

I don't know. The hell with it. I think I need to go read some Vorkosigan space opera to clear my mental palate. Let's kick some Cetagandan ass.

05 September 2009

Magical reading review

I probably shouldn't review or recommend a book till I've finished it. I'm only about halfway through Lev Grossman's The Magicians, but so far I think it's the best thing I've read since Pamela Dean's The Secret Country, which longtime readers will recognize as my highwater mark of fantasy literature.

Normally when I like a book I gallop through it, often ignoring somatic calls for food, sleep, or bathroom breaks, completely submerged in the world of the book, resentful if I have to put it down and re-engage with the world around me. Now I'm trying to slow myself down. I'm hoping not even to open the book today, to think about the first half of it and allow myself to remain suspended partway in the book-world, enjoying the idea that it will be there waiting for me tomorrow. I am, for once, acutely aware that I have only one opportunity to read this book for the first time, and I wish I were somewhere away from home so I could, in future, remember the occasion more precisely. (As, for instance, I remember reading Dracula in a friend's apartment in New York City, with a party going on around me, because I could not put it down.)

I saw a brief notice of The Magicians in the Times' Book Review last weekend (debuted at number nine on the hardback best-seller list), and thought I'd go to a bookstore and take a look. It might be something I would like, I thought, something like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. But it might also be simply fun, or actually stupid: my standards are high, and perhaps quirky.

I read five pages and handed over the hardcover price without hesitation. The book does deal with the study of magic. But it's something else entirely. Not to knock JS and Mr. N, which I enjoyed very much, and have read twice. The Magicians has a density, a gravity, a conviction that goes beyond any other fantasy literature I have ever encountered (and I include John Crowley and other masters of the fantasy novel, the novel that is a novel and not, say, a yarn, an epic, a children's story). It belongs to what I consider the hardest sub-category to write well, the magic-enters-the-modern-world type: this is part of the reason I would rank it above Bujold's Chalion books, which I found completely compelling on first reading and to which I have returned frequently. They take place entirely in another world, with its own laws and religion; Bujold doesn't have to make magic square with cell phones and the Internet.

If The Magicians ends badly or clumsily, like His Dark Materials (and really, how was Pullman supposed to get out of the hole he dug himself? he probably did as well as could be expected given the set-up), I will be disappointed. This may be one reason I'm trying to spin out the reading experience; I want to live in hope of an ending that matches the build-up. But if it ends well, I have a new masterpiece on my shelf.

Please don't include any spoilers if you comment.

03 September 2009

Anxiety dream? Confidence dream?

Yesterday I submitted my application to the workshop at Famous Library, and last night I dreamed I got a response. Rather than a straight yes/no answer, three different reviewers (the workshop faculty) supplied their written comments on my application.

The first one gave a long critique, which boiled down to "you're very well qualified, but I just don't feel like working with you." In the dream, I was very disappointed, but kept reading.

The next two were both very positive, saying basically, "Wonderful! You're perfect for this! Please come!"

But there was no definite yes/no even at the end, so it's not clear if two outvote one, or if the votes are weighted so there's one person who counts extra, or if they need to achieve consensus on the applicants.

I'm still not sure what sort of a dream this was. It seems I think pretty well of myself, as even the negative commenter admitted my qualifications; but perhaps I have some doubts about my ability to play well with others.

01 September 2009

Integrating research techniques in the lit class

Like most of you, I'm suddenly plunged deep into the whirlpool of the semester (79 students and a whackload of committee work), so I don't have much in the way of personal musings or cute cat stories (hard to have cute cat stories when you're not home to observe the beasts). Instead, I'm doubling up by using work as blog fodder: here's an assignment I'm working on for my graduate class on Chaucer. Comments are welcome (especially if they're as warm as those on the last post! thanks! but I would also like to know if you see ways to improve this).

I haven't decided whether they have to write this up formally, or just be prepared to talk about their findings; I'm leaning toward to the latter. Similarly to my last post, I'm aiming at inculcating a certain way of thinking, not insisting on formal details. I want my students to be able to question where essays come from, literally and figuratively; to apply this knowledge in discussing and writing about criticism; and, I hope, to apply this knowledge as they develop their own writing for publication.

I have selected a set of about 20 essays on a particular Canterbury Tale, with publication dates ranging from early in the twentieth century until 2005; each member of the class will choose an essay from this list. There are fewer than 20 students in the course, so nobody's forced into a particular essay just because of when they got the sign-up sheet.

Once they've chosen their essay, I'm asking the students to do the following work on it:

1. The trajectory of scholarship, and where your essay fits into this:

Look up “[Tale]” in the MLA database. Read through the list of entries (156 at the end of August 2009). Look at titles: what do they suggest about researchers’ interests or approaches? Look at journals or other venues of publication: what journals publish work on the [Tale]? Look at dates of publication: are there periods when a lot of articles on the [Tale] appear?

2. The status of your essay’s journal:

In the MLA database, look up the journal in which your essay appears. Where is its “home” (country, university)? What is its current circulation? What is its acceptance rate? How long does it take from submission to publication?

The older your essay, the less relevant is information about the current incarnation of the journal, of course. See if you can find out anything about the standing of the journal around the time your essay was published. Don’t spend too much time on this: maybe half an hour surfing the web and another half hour in the library. Possible approaches: (a) Find a hard copy of the journal (or, if it’s on J-STOR, search front and back matter) from the decade your essay was published, and see if it ever publishes information about its circulation, time to publication, etc. (Check more than one volume, as sometimes journals publish this information once a year, or at a longer interval.) (b) See if your journal has a home page that gives information about its history.

Who edited your journal at the time your essay was published? What university did the editor work at? What is the editor’s scholarly area? (Do another MLA search.) How well-published is the editor?

What can you tell about your journal’s mission or interests? Is there a clear statement about what sorts of essays it publishes? Does it have a sub-title that suggests its aims, even if there is no mission statement?

If there’s no statement, consider the editorial board: who is on it at the time your essay was published? (This information will usually appear inside the cover, in the front matter.) What are the board’s universities and areas of specialty? Do they tend to share a particular type of approach?

3. Your essay’s individual history:

Are there any footnotes in which the author thanks various readers, teachers, or colleagues for help or inspiration? If so, who/what gets thanks, and why? (What? For example, a “what” might be an NEH seminar, or an institution that supported a research leave.) Are there notes that indicate earlier incarnations as a conference paper or lecture? Does the author cite her/his own previously published work?

4. Your author:

This will be easier to answer if you have a more recent essay. Do what you can with the earlier ones, without spending huge tracts of time.

What can you find out, through the MLA database, a general web search, or reference works such as the Dictionary of Literary Biography, about your author? How long an academic career has this person had, and where in that career does your essay fall? Is this essay part of a sustained interest in [Tale], or a divergence from the author's usual scholarly pursuits? How many academic positions has your author held, and at what kind(s) of institutions? Where was s/he educated? Who was her/his dissertation advisor? (Sometimes people thank them in notes; sometimes it’s easy to figure out because there’s only one Chaucerian on the faculty of a particular university at the right date; sometimes you may be able to guess make an informed speculation; sometimes you can find the information in Dissertation Abstracts International; sometimes you may not be able to find this out.)

5. The essay:

Read it. (Finally!)
What is its argument?
What does it assume about its audience and their abilities?
How is it organized (are there sub-heads? are they numbered?)?
How much “sign-posting” does it do? (Sign-posting = phrases like “In this section I shall argue,” “Now we turn to the problem of ____.”)
How often does it refer to and/or quote Chaucer?
How often does it refer to and/or quote other scholars?
To what extent is it informed by literary theory, and which theories?

28 August 2009

Two cents on "learning objectives"

This is related to the discussion running around the blogosphere today about outcomes assessment; but distantly.

I'm applying for a workshop at a Famous Library, one focused on teaching rather than on research. I showed my writing group my letter of application, which includes information about the courses I want to enhance by taking this workshop, and what I want the students to get out of this enhancement.

All I want for the undergraduates is that they understand—because they have seen—the work that goes into making an edition of a medieval or early modern text: that someone has to read words written in old, probably crappy handwriting, perhaps in multiple versions, and somehow get from that to a single legible comprehensible printed text in the book they're using in class. I do have some assignments that involve editing a few lines, but I am not trying to turn undergrads into textual editors. "Understand" is my goal, my key word here.

And the person in the group who deals with learning objectives (etc.) suggests adding learning objectives, which have to be quantifiable, to the application.

Sure, I could add an assignment or a quiz question that makes students write out what editors do, based on what they learned from what we'll do in class, and then I would have proof that they "understood" something.

But that really isn't the point. I'm hoping to create that elusive "aha!" moment, the sense of "oh, so this is what a manuscript is," and "ugh, how do people read this?" and "wow, I can read this!" and "gosh, I never realized what went into creating our textbooks." I believe that an untested, that is, unquantified experience, without any anxiety about "what will be on the quiz?" or "what do you want in the paper?" will do a better job of creating the "aha!" than a serious "learning objective" ever could.

So I'm sticking to my version of my goals for the workshop and the classes. Understanding may not be quantifiable, and sometimes that's what we want.

25 August 2009

Placeholder of a post

Today started well. I had ideas for posts, one of which I planned to write as soon as I finished my planned work for the day. My phone had alarms set every hour from 8 to 3, with notes about what I was supposed to be doing. The first three hours went very well.

And then the Shakespearean Heroine got on the couch next to me, smelling funny. Not funny ha-ha.

She did not want to be cleaned up.

The couch did not object to being cleaned up; neither did the basement floor. The basement rug didn't exactly object, but did put up a certain amount of resistance to being hauled outside in order to be hosed down. (And that reminds me . . . I should retrieve it now.)

Then I came back inside to find the Shakespearean Heroine panting. Cats don't pant, and she is an elderly and not altogether healthy cat. I called the vet. The vet said, "Can you bring her in now?"

Large sums of money later, all appeared to be well, and we came home. I have now finished the morning's work. The afternoon's work is not going to happen today. I have forgotten my notions about interesting posts. My gym session will be much curtailed, but it is going to happen. So is cooking dinner, because I have to have leftovers, because tomorrow after teaching for two hours before noon I go straight into a meeting that is scheduled for another two hours after noon.

And Basement Cat has not had enough time to run around today, because the Shakespearean Heroine is isolated from the others, for now, and I've been in watching her breathe instead of out supervising B.C.'s interactions with the rest of the tenured faculty.

I can't remember how the "tenured faculty" thing came up. I think Sir John suggested, in jest, getting rid of a cat, and I said no, the cats have tenure. Then he wanted to know how Basement Cat got tenure, since none of the other tenured faculty approve of him.

I said that Basement Cat knows the Provost.

But I probably should have said that personality wasn't in the tenure requirements. B.C. is very good at many feline tasks, and today I particularly appreciate his stellar litter box usage. When he exits the box, you can tell only by the pawprints that he was even in there.

22 August 2009

More on that One Art

I didn't mean to be gone for so long. I went away, physically, to visit my father. It was a short but good visit. He's doing well, active mentally and physically. He does complain of having trouble getting through paperwork, and not being able to take time to work on projects he really wants to work on, and getting tired. Well, he's in his 80s; you might expect some of this.

But I'm nearly 40 years younger than he is, and I have similar complaints. I have more trouble than usual managing my time, and deadlines just don't seem urgent, and though I have interesting projects, it's hard to get down to work on them.

I think we're both still processing being without my mother, and I hope we may both start to feel more on top of things in a few months.

After I came back, I learned that a friend had suffered a family tragedy, a far worse one. Parents dying is in the order of things; but other losses seem horribly unnatural and wrong. And I realized a lot of my friends have lost friends or family members in the past year. In this case, misery does not love company. I keep thinking that as I get older, there will just be more and more of this. My grandmother outlived all her friends.

12 August 2009


August seems to be my season for clearing up and throwing away. Last year, it was my index cards; this year, it's a lot more stuff.

Yesterday I went to campus and revised my office. I have long wished that "Changing Rooms" would come and give my office a makeover. I can see when something is badly designed, but not what to do about it. I don't like the placement of my office door, or maybe it's just the position of the door relative to where the computer has to be because of outlets and connections. One problem was too much furniture. When I moved in, there were two desks, seven half-height bookcases, and a tier of attached-to-the-wall shelves. Then I acquired an ergonomic computer table, and at some point a large table moved in. I hadn't requested it; it just appeared. So things piled up on it, as they do.

I evicted one of the desks and a wobbly chair yesterday, and I'm wondering about that table. I moved it, anyway, and I may live with it in the new spot for a few weeks before deciding on whether it should go, too. Since I could see the bottom shelves of one of the bookcases (six of the seven are now stacked up, that is, in three groups of two), I started editing. A shelf of old PMLAs went into the recycling, as did a batch of LRU faculty bulletins I didn't know I had. (Sir John said, "Think of the historians of 20th-century American academia five hundred years from now!" They'll have to find someone else's copies.) I left a lot of books I haven't cracked in years on the "Free Books" table outside the TA offices. Then I could consolidate the other shelves. It was exceedingly therapeutic. I still need to have another go at the file cabinet (I did a little with it last fall), but the room is much improved.

Today it was the turn of my study at home, and this time I started with the file cabinet. I don't like filing cabinets anyway; either I don't put stuff in, or I never take it out. It's something about drawers, and depth, and loose papers. I do a little better with household records than with academic papers. I thought I'd try putting the academic things in binders, in hopes that I'd respond better to codices.

Out of a full drawer, I retained two folders and put the rest of what I wanted to save into a single 1-1/2 inch binder; all the rest went into the recycling bin. Handouts from Kalamazoos past, reading notes taken a decade ago, rejected drafts of papers, gone, gone, gone. It was interesting to see past bits of my life go by. I kept notes on Pearl from a graduate class, but tossed old student presentations on same. I decided to keep the fairly positive comments from a noted scholar on one of my dissertation chapters, when I sought feedback about how to turn it into an article. Though I doubt I will return to it now, it seems like bad karma to throw out encouragement. There's a gap in my career, because of having been not very well after I got tenure; I had a lot of conference papers and partially-developed things that got put aside, and then stayed in those folders in those drawers, with the printouts of bibliography, and the comments and additions in different colored inks. I tossed them all. If I were to go back to any of those projects, I'd have to start fresh. My working methods have changed, the bibliographies are out of date (and far more easily assembled now), my critical allegiances have shifted. In short, I've moved on.

So now I have a drawer into which I can put some of the paper that has been filling boxes in my study. What's more, after tossing the PMLAs yesterday, it dawned on me that with J-STOR, there is no reason to keep more than the most recent five years of Speculum. So the recycling bin here is filled with old Specula (I wonder what the garbage men will think), and the study bookshelves are reconfigured (always dangerous; I hope I will still be able to find books).

I'm generally very bad at getting rid of stuff, but this felt great. It was hard to get started, in both rooms, and early stages required a lot of breaks; but at a certain point, momentum takes over. I especially liked getting rid of things I don't think I'll ever work on again. I begin to have some dim idea of what it feels like to leave academia for a new career. I can't imagine doing so myself, and yet I can imagine a sense of euphoria rising as you walk away from the shelves and cabinets, ready to start over in a mental if not physical somewhere-else.

I know things will pile up again. There will be print-outs, more books, more drafts, more bits of paperwork that I keep because I can't decide whether or not I need them or intend to act on them. I'm not making any grand resolutions about turning over a new leaf. But it's nice to have a little more space.