23 December 2010

Merry bah humbug

Dear heaven, it really is the holidays, isn't it? Parties here, there, and everywhere: last night, tonight, tomorrow. No wonder I can't get anything done. I keep having to bake, and buy things, wrap things, ship things, acquire more things to eat both to take to various parties, and so there will be things to eat on Saturday when everything is closed. And so on and so forth.

My university's library is closed, which is another reason I can't get anything done. I need books to look up things that need to be changed/corrected in an essay that's been accepted; the necessary information is not available online. I could, of course, be working on that overdue revise-and-resubmit, only I have it firmly fixed in my mind that I have to do the corrections first. Furthermore, the R&R is about Chaucer, and after reading [refuse to think of number] student essays on Chaucer [refuse to think about quality, as quantity is bad enough], I really don't want to have anything to do with another essay on Chaucer, even if it's my own.

My sense of this time of year, clearly, is still strongly shaped by my single years, in which it seemed I rarely got invited to anything. I hunkered down with my cat and got a lot of work done, and I managed to plan and get the books I needed (as well as some fun reading) in advance of any library closings. Or maybe the library was open more hours, before the current budget crunch. In those days, any party that did come up was a delightful chance (even for an introvert) to interact with live! human! beings! Now I would welcome a little peace and quiet. Oh well. I suppose the editors are dealing with their own holiday chaos, not refreshing their e-mail every ten minutes to see if I've submitted my work yet.

22 December 2010

Possessive mnemonic

It's very simple.

It's simple, he's simple, she's simple: subjects plus the verb "is" drop the "i" and add an apostrophe. He's, she's, it's.

But his simplicity is his, and hers belongs to her, and its simplicity belongs to it. His, hers, its.

This Public Service Announcement brought to you by your friendly neighborhood pedant.

19 December 2010


I've finally succumbed to the Moleskine Empire: this is what I couldn't resist. So little, so cute, so many colors. I'm still trying to find the right calendar for me, and at the moment, I'm sure I have too many. I've been using a 2-page-per-week calendar that I made up myself; I still have my PDA; I have a blotter-size desk calendar showing a month at a time; I now have these little monthly notebooks for 2011; and I have a 2011 page-a-day calendar that lists times from 7:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., which I intend to use only for recording what I have actually done, rather than listing things to do. I've fallen out of the habit of tracking my time, lately (well, since at least the middle of the semester, to be honest), and I want to get back to it.

I think the organizational experts recommend that you have just one calendar so you don't get confused. But having two or three works for me, because the multiples help make time more concrete for me. Seeing the same dates and lists in different formats is helpful. I keep hoping that someday I will find some unusual layout or format that turns me into someone who truly believes in time as a concrete and manageable concept.

My sense of time really is much like my sense of basic mechanics: I know that I have to deal appropriately with time, just as I know that the table has to exert an upward force on the object that rests on it, to make the mathematics work out. But I've never really intuitively grasped that force, and I do not have an intuitive grasp of time. I trust the equations, and I play with my calendars, and things mostly get done in a more-or-less timely manner. And now I have lots of lovely new leaves to turn over on the first of January!

14 December 2010


I've turned in my grades, despite continuing cat drama. All but one of the darlings has been to the vet in the past week. One went twice. Another will be going again.

There are things to write, things to read, things to prep for the spring, and things to buy, make, order, wrap, deliver, and/or send.

But I think I'm taking the rest of the day off.

08 December 2010

Wonderfully different? Wondrously pissed?

I "heart" all you people who are pissed off by that prompt.

Still crossing fingers, but I think the cats are doing better today.

I don't have much idea who my "followers" are, but I did notice that I recently lost one. Too much cat blogging? Too much whining? You can't please everybody, all of the time. Thank you for going away quietly, without telling me what's wrong with my blog.

And now, back to grading exams and surveilling cat poop.

07 December 2010

No, really, cats!

And the Shakespearean Heroine had to go to the vet in the afternoon. Cat-people, please.

As for the student-people: the final exam was yesterday. Yes, I know I made a mistake on the syllabus. I am sorry about that. And I made that announcement in class every day the last week of classes. And you were there. Despite what you may have written down, I did not say it was on a day that was neither yesterday nor today. I can't take notes for you; please try to transcribe announcements on the classroom whiteboard accurately. Or check the university website, which is up and running and contains the entire final exam schedule. Haven't I been enough of an absent-minded professor to make you realize you should check on such things?

Yeah, so I got into my e-mail long enough to get the student e-mails, but when I tried to open the message containing the page proofs that have to be done by Monday, no dice. That server problem is seeming less restful now.

Back to grading exams, I guess. Nobody better need to go to the vet before tomorrow morning.

Oh, come on, cats!

Pull yourselves together.

Now Basement Cat is off his feed, under the weather, etc. Inconclusive vet trip this morning. If he's not eating by tomorrow morning, there will have to be another (no doubt even more expensive) vet trip, because we can't afford to ignore the possibility that he might have found some string to eat, even though we don't know how he might have done that. But if anybody around here were going to manage it, Basement Cat would be the one to do it. At any rate, at this point every single one of our non-human housemates is on twice-a-day medication. Most of them, at least, are pretty good about it.

Basement Cat needs two humans and a towel.

I'm getting a little tired of all the cat drama.

I did finish grading all the papers and got them all back yesterday. Now I have exams to grade, instead.

I found a missing mechanical pencil and am hoping that this might be a good omen for retrieving other lost objects. Not holding my breath, though.

And my favorite news of the day . . . the e-mail server is down at school. Being out of touch is surprisingly restful. I'm sure that when the server comes back, I'll have a ridiculous amount of mail, but for now, out of sight is out of mind.

05 December 2010

Not a good weekend

I brought the grading on myself; I'm not even complaining about that. And worrying over sick cats is a pretty standard part of my life (sorry to say). But there's more:

My "losing streak" continues. I washed an earring down a shower drain at the gym yesterday. Two libraries are getting unhappy about books I had from ILL. I'm fairly sure I returned them weeks ago (I remember reading one at the gym to prepare to return it, as it wouldn't renew), but I can't find either the receipts for them or the books themselves, and I've been very good about collecting receipts this year. I may have had some "brilliant" idea about a safe place to stash them, which is so safe that I can't find it. I don't think I've ever lost a book. I'm more a hoarder of books than a loser of them. I will have to ask the libraries to do a search, but I'm not very hopeful here. I've combed my study, my office, and my car.

And last night I got rear-ended while stopped at a stoplight on an icy road. No visible damage to the car, but I'll have to get it checked out. My neck hurts, but not so much that I'm really worried; it hurts no more than in a collision that was my fault a few years back.

It could be worse. A lot worse. It's really all small stuff that isn't worth sweating; if I refrained from writing this post, I might not even remember all this in a year, even in a few months. But I'm feeling sorry for myself.

OK, back to grading. Condolences to anyone else in grading jail. Should we send secret messages and stage a prison revolt?

04 December 2010

How Chaucer prepares you for the real world

Would you like a side of friars with that?

To be fair, the sentence did actually make sense as written; it's just that the first time through I did not parse "a side of friars" correctly. My bad. This time.

When I read a competently written paper, free of stupid errors (surely you should have learned in high school, or freshman comp at latest, that titles of short works, like essays, go inside quotation marks, and book titles get italicized, and that you should refer to essays by the names of their authors, not the name of the editor of the collection? Surely?) and with evidence of actual thought and engagement with the material, I can feel my blood pressure drop. I feel as if my fur has finally, finally, been stroked in the right direction. I get interested in what the paper has to say, when I don't have to struggle to understand sentences and to figure out the logic (if any) of paragraphs. (I have at least two students who do not distinguish between "logic" and "free association.") So, yes, there are some good ones; but I am most terribly tired of reading papers that (a) show that the writer doesn't actually understand the text being discussed and (b) make me work harder to understand the writing than I can believe the writer worked at the writing.

OK, that was a horrible sentence, but you see what this is doing to me. Maybe I'll go out for a side of friars.

03 December 2010

Cat update

The Shakespearean Heroine has recovered very well from her lumpectomy. These tumors are 90% malignant in cats; hers was in the 10% of pre-cancerous. She's bright-eyed and always hopeful of extra food, these days.

But now the Scot is sick. It looks like we're going to have two cats on chemotherapy, if the biopsy agrees with the initial findings. That is, the cancer is certain; the question is whether it's the more treatable sort or the very-bad-news sort. The treatable sort can go into remission for years, and of course that's what we hope for. The Scot is my favorite cat; I'm really not ready to give him up. Although he's not a traditional alpha-cat type, his calm, mellow, affectionate personality strongly influences the other cats in this multi-cat household. He's made friends with everybody, including the Heroine (who just vanted to be alone, when we got her) and Basement Cat.

So, please join me in waving the Scottish flag, so to speak, and rooting for my ginger guy.

30 November 2010

That was fast

This must be some sort of record. Discovery occurred on Saturday. I researched the $#!? out of it on Sunday. Checked some things and wrote an abstract yesterday. Fiddled with the abstract and sent it this morning.

This afternoon I got a response: "Love it! Yes, please!"

So I'll be going to that conference. Right after the R&R and the Next Thing, I can start checking details, ordering up documents (ooh, transcription!), making further connections, teasing out implications, and struggling with writing the paper that right now seems like it will write itself.

Grading, yeah, final exams, right, no problem, sure, they'll get done.

27 November 2010


I should, of course, be grading. And you might quite reasonably expect me to be panicking over everything that has to be done all too soon: grading (piles of longish papers from undergrads; easier assignments from grads); inventing final exams (and then grading them, week after next); finishing that damned R&R that I have not been working on in sensible brief stints. Some sane portion of my brain is, in fact, in a state over all that.

However, as of this morning I know something about provenance of a medieval manuscript that nobody else knows, and the larger portion of my brain is callooh-ing and callay-ing about this lovely discovery. (Apparently I can't be left alone for ten minutes with a book containing reproductions of late-medieval marginalia without coming up with another research project, even though I can't seem to finish the last one.) The timing is perfect, because a conference abstract deadline is fast approaching, for a conference I love but thought I'd have to miss or attend purely as audience this time, because not only am I supposed to be finishing things, but I really didn't have anything up my sleeve for it.

But now I have something really cool (at least I think so) to work up and present. I am obnoxiously pleased with myself and my new shiny project. If I were capable of doing without sleep for the next two weeks, everything would be fine.

Do you think I could get the cats to handle the grading?

25 November 2010

Basement Cat meets Basement Cat

While we are definitely the Crazy Cat People on our block, several of our near neighbors are also servants to cats, and one of the closest has two: a big black cat and his clearly part-Siamese sister. Their person allows them to go out while she is doing yard work.

Sir John and I do not approve of letting cats go out, but having mentioned the reasons for this a time or two, we now shut up and pet Neighbor Catboy and Neighbor Catgirl when they're out.

Both of them are very nice, sweet, friendly cats, especially Neighbor Catboy. He likes everybody. Both of them like to jump up on the ledge outside our living room window.

Most of our cats say, "Oh, hey, another cat. We're used to . . . [yawn] . . . cats. [Snore.]"

But our Basement Cat is another matter. On Monday, Neighbor Catgirl got on the outside ledge while Basement Cat was on the inside sill. I was at school, but Sir John said he thought Basement Cat was having a hairball: low yowls and an odd chittering noise, like an insect.

Tuesday, while I was home, it happened again.

Wednesday, Neighbor Catboy, aka Neighbor Basement Cat, jumped up on the ledge. Our BC screamed. Poofed. Howled his indignation and intent to terminate with extreme prejudice.

There is ONLY ONE Basement Cat in the world, and we shall have no other basement cats before him.

23 November 2010


Is there a penalty for failing to turn in the final paper?

Well, that paper is worth 20 points, or 20% of your grade, so yes, yes there is.

Or did you mean would I impose a further penalty? I suppose that might make sense, but no, I will not take off 25 points for not turning in a 20-point paper. What you see is what you get.

Actually, I might be willing to give you 3 free points for not making me grade the paper, but I guess I won't say that.

I am convinced that a lot of students think (despite all evidence to the contrary) that they will get graded just on what they turn in. Get C's on the first three pieces of work (worth, in my calculation, 30% of the semester's grade)? OK, that's a C sewn up, so stop turning in work. And then howl in agony when it turns out that you're failing the course for lack of the other 70%.

Grumble grumble grumble.

22 November 2010

Slinky and the Dame

Remember the Brain? "What are we going to do tonight, Brain?" "The same thing we do every night, Pinky: try to take over the world!"

Well, here's a pale imitation. Yup, I have succumbed to the xtranormal bug. Go ahead, throw the tomatoes. And the dead mice.

21 November 2010

Is it over yet?

I teach two classes tomorrow. And then I'm off for a week. Then there's one more week.

Couldn't we just say we're done?

15 November 2010

What I'm not doing

Not long ago, I was planning to apply for a grant that would support work on a manuscript from a period later than the Middle Ages. Motivations: genuine interest in the topic; a well-founded belief that the manuscript is under-studied and that I would have things to say about it that its other admirers would not; enjoyment of time spent in rare-books rooms in general and of that one in particular; the prestige of getting grants (because, false modesty aside, I think I could write a proposal that would get funded); and advice, long ago, from one of my dissertation committee members about getting a publication out of every topic you spend a lot of time on.

It's that last one that got me thinking. This advice was not from the cold dead magister; but it has, I think, contributed to a form of perfectionism, the urge to recover sunk costs. I have already spent time with this manuscript. I have done some research into its writer and his family. I have "read around" in the literature and social history of the period. This does sound as if I have invested in the project; it would make sense to finish what I started.

That investment, however, was made at a time when my judgment was impaired; and even then I had doubts about whether this work really required me to do it. Now, having had that conversation about perfectionism, and having worked out how many hours I'm supposed to spend on research and teaching, I've reconsidered.

My committee member, after all, could probably better afford to spend time marking his territory than I can. He teaches three courses a year. Applying my own arithmetic here (length of semester, 40-hour-week, etc., as in the last-linked post), that gives him a little more than 145 hours per year more than I have to work on research. There are other factors to consider, as well. His classes are smaller than mine, so he can spend less time on grading. On the other hand, he certainly has more graduate students than I have, and some of that time that he doesn't use on classes undoubtedly goes to reading drafts of chapters and advising Ph.D. candidates. I can affirm that he reads very attentively, gives lots of comments, and is happy to talk over ideas. Nonetheless, I think it's very likely that he has more time than I to spend on learning the background in a new area.

In Jonathan Mayhew's terms, he can afford to broaden his scholarly base.

I'm not so sure that I can. I have a scholarly base that serves me well, in the fields in which I teach and publish. I have work I want to do that relies firmly on that base. I can do that work more easily, and probably better, than I can do the early-modern manuscript project. Fascinating though I find its author, he takes me away from the work that I am convinced is my "proper job."

So, with some regrets, I'm not applying to go back to that library. Maybe someday; maybe after I write a book and finish a few more articles, if I'm at loose ends, if there's nothing else I long to do that uses my current scholarly base, then, perhaps, with or without a grant, I would go back. For now, I'm concentrating on finishing that R&R, getting two more articles finished and submitted, and then getting on with the book.

The decision makes me a little nervous. What if I'm passing up something wonderful, something that could be prize-winning or career-changing? Was that manuscript an opportunity that fell in my lap, to which I said "no," instead of greeting it with proper enthusiasm?

But I'm sure enough that this is a good decision. I'm not old yet; but I'm not young, either. If I want to produce a truly coherent body of work (whether or not it meets the two-monograph standard), I need to get on with it. I need to stop running after the new, shiny objects, and finish the old projects with which I feel a little bored because I've answered (to my own satisfaction, though not in a form available to others) the question that drew me to them. I need to recognize that I work at LRU with a five-course load and a lot of committee work, not an Ivy with three (though I'm grateful for five and not six or seven or eight) and the ability to remain unaware of how STEM grants can help fund the humanities. It's time to get real.

Sometimes you just have to let the sunk costs stay sunk.

14 November 2010

Of letters I need but five . . .

(or rather four, one repeated), to write me down a cynic.

I thought the original video about grad school in the humanities was too true to be really funny.

And the kinder, gentler version is boring. Not funny. Possibly useful for aspiring students, or for profs who would rather say "go watch this video" instead of having either conversation.

I'm not nice enough to keep my mouth shut altogether, but I can at least not snark in other people's comments. But, people . . . I'm grading over here. If I'm going to use my rather slow internet connection to load videos, I want them to be funny.

Chaucer was a zombie

I can't quote directly . . . but a student paper's phrasing implies that a couple of hundred years after Chaucer's (presumed) death, he was going to school in chemistry and theology.

I devoutly hope this is a problem with expressing ideas clearly, rather than misunderstanding a scholarly article, or finding a source that really does claim Chaucer as a zombie, or a vampire. Then again, given the historical sensitivity of some of my students, misunderstanding seems quite possible.

Sir John asks when someone is going to write the Un-Morte D'Arthur. Give us credit if you take up the challenge.

12 November 2010

Not my department!

I'm willing to question (in fact, do question regularly) whether it is part of my job to re-teach composition in upper-division literature courses, or just indicate that yes, I do expect you to know how to quote, cite, and use commas and semi-colons appropriately, and if you don't do these things I will (a) refer you to a handbook and (b) dock your grade.

The student essay I just read, however, suggests that the writer's literacy level is way below college level, a problem that has been partially obscured through two-thirds of the semester by our focus on primary texts, i.e., those written in Middle English. But when a person doesn't understand an essay published in this century, written for a student audience, there's a problem that is way, way beyond my ability to solve. There may be an undiagnosed learning disability, or the student may simply have been passed through courses that Stu should by rights have failed.

I'm sorry this happened. I have no idea how Stu got to be an English major with this level of difficulty in reading and writing. But I'm not a literacy specialist. I teach Middle English literature and language, not middle school language arts. I'm signing off on this one. Even if Stu does come to office hours (a request I made weeks ago, which has been been ignored), I'll punt, and recommend various other campus agencies that would be more use.

So, should I teach semi-colons, or just take points off for using them wrong?

07 November 2010

Fora words of wisdom

"It's no use caring about their grades more than they do."



Do not stop to wonder why they are repeating errors from their earlier papers when not only did I mark the errors then, I allot class time for students to read through their comments, ask questions about them, and make a list of things they are going to try to do better on their next paper.

It may be no use, but I'm pretty sure I do care about their grades more than they do.

On a more cheerful note, I've also been reading the auto ethnographer's blog, and though I am green with envy at the pictures of the sabbatical house and town, it also makes me happy to fantasize a similar situation for myself someday.

Either I have miscounted these papers, or an awful lot of people turned them in online but not in hard copy, or didn't turn them in at all. I don't think I'm going to finish today, but there is hope of being done by Wednesday's classes: another cheerful thought.

Five-minutes-later update: D'oh! I found the rest of the papers. Gah. Clearly grading, or something, is affecting my brain.

06 November 2010

Foolish consistency = hobgoblin of little minds

I'm grading late into the night again. Question of the hour: why, when I have provided my students with the proper format for citing an essay from a book collection (on the assignment sheet, so they didn't even have to come to class for this), and most of them (not all: why don't you actually read the assignment sheet?) successfully reproduce it in the Works Cited section, do they then italicize the essay title in the body of the paper?

No, never mind, I know: they're not actually paying any attention to what they write.

I'm interspersing the actual grading with visits to the "Bang your head" thread over at the Chronicle. At the rate I'm going (working backwards, not forwards), I may exhaust the thread before I finish the papers.

Basement Cat is chewing my colored pens. Maybe he thinks I should stop now.

Cats and pink ribbons

The Shakespearean Heroine will be going in for surgery in a few days. She has a cyst in a mammary gland.

That's right. My cat is getting a lumpectomy.

I'd tie a big pink bow around her neck, but I'm fairly sure that if I tried that I would wind up missing some fingers.

01 November 2010

Worlds of writing: for All Souls

I keep thinking about Profacero's remarks about needing to get back in touch with the Writing Self in order to write, and the time that this takes when Writing Self is eclipsed by Teaching Self (or other selves).* Certainly not only Teaching Self but also Bill-Paying Self, and various other selves, interfere with writing, for me (though tasks like laundry and cooking allow for useful reflection on writing, if interwoven with writing time rather than replacing it).

But I wonder if it's more than that. How much time does it take to get into the world of which one writes? Boice, after all, is a psychologist; he writes about the world he actually lives in, people he's actually talked with, and what's more, he "writes up" rather than "writing," in my parlance: arguably, his studies of people are his real work, as experiments are the real work of scientists, and writing is what such scholars do to communicate their results.

Of course, I think I have argued elsewhere that reading is my real work, my lab time, and that writing essays is a form of "writing up."

Nonetheless, I do discover things in the act of writing that I do not find while reading, so writing is not a mechanical filling-in of sections that belong in the lab report (apologies to any scientific readers; I realize that what you do is not so simple as that; I'm referring more to comments of Boice's about planning out sections of writing projects). Moreover, I'm not just "dropping down the well" (Julia Cameron's term) to the Writing Self, but re-creating a long-dead world. The most recent past of which I write is over 400 years gone. A man of whom I hope to write more has been dead these 372 years, and yet I keep saying, only partly facetiously, that I'm in love with him (or at least with his book). And that's just this spin-off project that I was unsure about last year. My "real work" lies another 150 to 275 years deeper into the past.

Perhaps it's different if you think of your work as being about texts; if you read medieval or early-modern texts primarily through the lens of recent literary theories; if you study old works in the context of sweeping movements or broad themes; if you work on medievalism; if you focus on linguistic change over time. I work on manuscripts: books that belonged to and were hand-written by real, if often nameless, people. Even when I write about texts, these days, I can't avoid thinking about the books they come from, the hands that handled them, the voices that spoke their words aloud for a listening audience, the ink that no doubt got on the fingers of those who scribbled in their margins. As Dr. Virago speaks for the dead, I speak for dead readers and writers. Even nameless, they get in my head. I listen for them, hearing whispers and mumbles from the next room, most of the time, but getting a few clear words here and there. With later people, like my early-modern inamorato, the sense of personality is much stronger, and I hear whole sentences and bits of verse. It is a bit like being haunted, a bit like possession, and it's hard to break out of that and come back to this world, with a pile of quizzes to grade, bills to pay, cats to feed, highways to drive. And similarly, it is difficult to put those things aside and slither down the rabbit hole in the first place. The past is another country; they do things differently there. It's hard to adjust to different customs. I often think that if I met the people I study, I would probably not like them much. That doesn't stop the haunting.

What do you think? How much time does it take to switch gears and re-create the world in which, or of which, you write?

*Profacero thinks of this as a gendered problem. That is her reality, and I don't exactly disagree; but it is not, at the moment, how I choose to think of the problem. This may simply be a failure of feminism on my part.

31 October 2010

Sigh of relief

I have finished A Thing. Not just finished, but submitted. Consummatum est.

It's a short thing. It was supposed to be a quick-and-dirty, if not quick-and-easy, distraction from other writing, something I thought I'd throw together in ten days when I realized a deadline was barreling down the tracks at me. I thought that since I'd been working on this material (on and off) for five years, it should be easy to put together a conference-paper length note just to have something out there; and if I missed the deadline, then I would go back to the Current Project briefly before beginning to read for my R&R (speaking of deadlines barreling down upon me).

Forty days later . . . . Well. Now I know that when I work out how long something will take me, I should then multiply by four. At least, that's the factor when I'm teaching three classes and dealing with intermittent panic about which project to procrastinate work on.

But now it is done, and sent, and no matter what happens with it, I have submitted one piece of unsolicited, original, scholarly work this year. The R&R (gods willing and the creek don't rise) will make two. The poor Current Project . . . all I wanted was to get it into shape to send to a couple of friends last summer this fall over winter break? There might be a window in which I can get back to it before I have to turn to revising last year's Kalamazoo paper for publication (thanks to another deadline).

Deadlines are very helpful things. I wish I didn't need them to be set by other people. I know people who set and meet their own deadlines. Why can't I be one of them? Maybe it has something to do with that factor of four. Still, if I recognize that factor, I can work with it. And cutting it back to a factor of three seems like a worthwhile goal.

It amazes me how suddenly a horrible mess can gel into what looks like a tidy, professional piece of writing. A week ago I was still pulling my hair out. There were bracketed notes to myself all through the Thing, and although my writing group said to cut everything after page 5 (and most of page 2), I wasn't sure. In the end, much of pages 5-8 returned, page 2 came back as conclusion, the bracketed notes became formatted endnotes, and now my mess is a Thing of Beauty. If the Thing returns, I'll find someone else who will appreciate it.

But let's hope the place I sent it will be its Forever Home.

25 October 2010

Review re-run

About two years ago, I wrote about the Broadview Canterbury Tales, which I was considering as a textbook. I'm now in my second semester with it, and I'm not so happy with it.

One reason is simply familiarity (or lack thereof): I'm used to the Riverside's composite text, with readings and spellings from Hengwrt as well as Ellesmere. Presumably, over time one would adapt to that. But that's really the least of the problems, though individually they all seem small. It's the aggregate that makes me want to return to the Riverside.

The line numbering goes a little funky now and then, especially around the end of a tale or section; there sometimes seem to be extra lines that don't appear in the numbering system.

I don't like the punctuation. Sentences are chopped up in unfamiliar ways (so in a way this is reason one over again), and I think sometimes they don't make such good sense as in the Riverside's punctuation. I like to see related ideas grouped together in elaborate clauses rather than presented as a serious of one-line sentences.

The notes are less detailed than I would like. True, the Riverside's Explanatory Notes at the end of the book are awkward to consult and go over the heads of many of my students if they do look them up. But I would like them to be there for my more advanced students.

The lack of language instruction in the introduction turns out to be a problem. I thought that wouldn't matter, because I did a lot of my own explaining anyway. And if I were really organized and wrote my own mini-grammar-handbook (or just a series of handouts) that would be one thing. But it turns out I'm not that organized (big surprise, yeah?), and that a lot of my in-class explaining was in response to student questions about the Riverside's introductory material. If I assign it, it may be confusing for some, but at least they read it and then when they ask questions I can fill in some gaps, and even people who didn't do the reading will get something out of the lecture. Now, students aren't even asking questions, because they don't know what they don't know; they don't know where to start with the questions. I need them to ask questions so I know what to lecture on.

Cost is a problem. Used copies of the Riverside CT are a little more expensive than the Broadview, new. I do try to be aware of textbook costs, and save my students money where I can. Some of the problems I mention could be overcome if I wrote more handouts and just spent more time with this version of the text. But, bottom line, I'm not very comfortable with the Broadview edition, and I feel like my teaching is suffering because of that. If the Riverside CT were cheaper, I would definitely go back to it, no question. As it is . . . I think I'll go back, and feel guilty.

24 October 2010

I, Prof-robot

I had two coffees today. I mean Saturday, yesterday. Both should have been decaf. I think one was full-lead. So here I am, wide awake in the middle of the night. And what am I doing with my time? That's right: grading. The students are right. We're always on the job. We have no lives. Outside of class, we live in our offices, and the janitors unplug us at night and plug us back in when they arrive in the morning. Or maybe we plug ourselves in to recharge at night, since now that we're doing more with less, there are fewer janitors to look after us. Somebody forgot to unplug me tonight, so I just keep writing my favorite comments about funnel introductions (they out-Herod Herod), the importance of fragment numbers when citing the Canterbury Tales, and seeing #4 on the assignment sheet (recipe for a good thesis statement in a close reading).

21 October 2010

Another rant

It's not just titles that cause trouble, but my name itself. At least in these parts. "Hull" will stand in nicely for my real name, as both are common-enough English surnames, from English place-names. I never have this problem in the British Isles, despite my American accent and the variety of regional accents there; from Cork to York, Edinburgh to Exeter, on the phone, in person, my name is immediately understood and correctly spelled.

In the U.S., however, from coast to coast, conversations go something like this:

"Your last name?"
"No, Hull."
"Spell that, please."
"Aitch, Yew, Ell . . . "
"Aitch, Yew, Oh . . ."
"No, Ell, as in Lightbulb."
"Oh, Hull!"

What the Hull is so hard about my name?

19 October 2010

A messy post about writing (messily)

I hate to admit it, but that post about your metaphor for writing keeps echoing through my head, and the quotation in my last post set off another round of reverb.

Just on the literal level, some of the piles of paper I have for writing projects are at least three inches thick. Hanging them on the wall would probably cause structural damage. And as for a cover sheet listing what needs to be done to finish them, jumping Jehosaphat, if I were capable of making that list I wouldn't have any trouble finishing the project, whether or not I actually wrote the list down. It may be a character flaw or a sign of a deeply disorganized mind (but wait, I thought that was a marker of creativity), or it might be due to the way I work or the type of work I do.

(Sir John says I'm more like a experimental scientist, where the "list" goes, "Shoot some electrons at some aluminum atoms and see what happens. Whoops, that wasn't what we were expecting. Figure out what to try next.")

One of my projects needs me to look up some words in the MED, the OED, and the LALME; that's clear-cut enough. But what comes next depends on what I find. It's probably something like "stare at results and see if they shift into a meaningful pattern." It might be "find some more reference works to fine-tune this." It might be . . . well, look, I see no point in developing a flow chart of all the possibilities I might pursue; even I can see that that is prime work-avoidance activity.

Moving on to further reactions . . . .

"'Joyful blessing' my ass," I said, and started thinking hateful thoughts about my piled-up projects. Actually, whether it's down to temperament or religious attitude, I don't think in terms of blessings. Last night, in fact, images of wilderness and deserts sprang to mind, with me hacking away at underbrush that chokes my path again as soon as it's cleared, or slogging away hopelessly towards an oasis that might well be a mirage. Why do I do this?

How can I not?

And then I thought: my writing and I are like one of those ill-assorted couples that make onlookers wonder how they ever got together, and what keeps them together. They bicker. They insult each other. At least one fantasizes about leaving the other. But if an outsider suggests actually leaving, the response is, "Oh, no, Spouse couldn't manage without me. And . . . you know . . . I'm not sure I could manage without Spouse."

My writing makes me feel awful, sometimes (it tells me I'm not smart enough, not hard-working enough, not dedicated enough). I fear it will leave me for someone younger, smarter, fitter, more energetic, more organized. I get frustrated with it. It goes slowly. It's messy, baggy, a pain in the ass. But give it up? No way. It gives meaning to my life. I wish I had more time for it. Maybe I should take it on vacation (writing retreat) and show it a good time. Of course it would probably mean more if I just did my share around the desk every day, instead of trying to make up for neglect with new pens and notebooks and things. But my writing is part of me. We don't have to be nice to each other. It knows how I feel.

And certainly I like it too much to nail it to the wall.

18 October 2010

I . . . don't know what to say

I should go to bed; instead, of course, I'm reading blogs, & of course my attention was caught by this title: Mid-Semester Sinking Feeling. I clicked over, and read this:

"The mere act of cleaning my office, clipping together my packets, and creating my cover sheets brought me tremendous clarity. I even put my cover sheets onto beautiful flowered paper to remind me that each writing project is a joyful blessing in my professional life!"

Sorry, but you just lost me, even though I usually love to read about getting organized. I'm going to have to fall back on my favorite quotation from Anne Lamott: "That is so beautiful, I said; and I am so mentally ill."

Only, really, I don't think I'm the sick one here.

17 October 2010

RBO Catching Up

  • I have managed to keep myself amused through part of a batch of papers by pasting the finished page of comments into wordle and seeing what they look like. Sometimes it is instructive to compare one page with the previous one, or to get a sense of whether the right words will jump out at the student. But I think I'm going to have to stop doing this and just get on with it.
  • Having reading glasses certainly makes it easier to do close work.
  • They are the new glasses. The old ones seem well and truly gone. Along with my lovely case. Sniff.
  • I have not yet picked green tomatoes. I have many many things to do that more urgently need doing.
  • I have ordered blinds from a local place that will install them. One less thing to do myself.
  • Basement Cat is a breathing obsidian paperweight on my desk.
  • I have ordered another pair of footwear as a Grading Bribe. Unfortunately, after the last experience of having to return the bribe and yet still having to finish the grading, I am feeling a bit cynical (or do I mean righteous?), and the prospect of a Grading Bribe is not having so stimulating an effect as I might wish. It may be necessary to visit the chocolate aisle at Trader Joe's to provide more immediate rewards.
  • But that would also require longer sessions at the gym, and I have many many things to do . . . .

10 October 2010


  • Glasses have not reappeared. I ordered new ones. If that makes the old ones reappear, then there will be one pair for work and one for home.
  • I don't like the colors currently available in similar glasses cases. Le sigh, le pout.
  • 3 sets of papers to grade. Le waaaaah.
  • I have lots of green tomatoes refusing to ripen. Cooking mince pie filling is no doubt in my future. Maybe it would be a good break from grading. Maybe if I took mince pies to school, people wouldn't notice they didn't have their papers back yet.
  • The Rebelletriste's Twain seriously freaked out Basement Cat. Poofy tail, spinal horripilation, nervous retreat up the stairs. Never mind squirt bottles, I want me a baby to threaten that cat with when he's bad.
  • I think I want top-down/bottom-up honeycomb blinds on some of our windows, preferably cord-free ones, because of the cats. Does anybody have experience installing them? Wot's it loike?

08 October 2010

Hola, Profacero!

If you're going password-protected, will you invite me? My e-mail address is in the sidebar.

Muchas gracias.

06 October 2010

Blogging the lost

My reading glasses! In the periwinkle-blue case from Levenger . . . please come home! No questions asked; I hope you're having a good time exploring new places, but please, please, come back. I'll get you a new case, if that's what you want, or take you to exotic libraries, if that will please you. I can barely work without you. Life just isn't the same in your absence. Come home, come home to me, o my spectacles!

03 October 2010

Pursue elsewhere? Yeah, right.

I am outraged.

See also here.

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Today the seven members of the French faculty at SUNY--Albany (all
tenured) were informed that by presidential decision, ostensibly for
budgetary reasons, the French program has been "deactivated" at all
levels (BA, MA, PhD), as have BA programs in Russian and Italian. The
only foreign language program unaffected is Spanish. The primary
criterion used in making the decision was undergrad majors-to-faculty
ratio. We were told that tenured faculty in French, Russian, and Italian
will be kept on long enough for our students to finish their
degrees--meaning three years at the outside. Senoir faculty are being
encouraged to take early retirement. The rest of us are being urged to
"pursue our careers elsewhere," as our Provost put it.

Needless to say, the decision is personally devastating to those of us
affected, but it is also symptomatic of the ongoing devaluation of
foreign-language and other humanities program in universities across the
United States. I'm writing to ask for your help in spreading the word
about this decision as widely as possible and in generating as much
negative media publicity as possible against SUNY--Albany and the SUNY
system in its entirety.

There is much background to add about how this decision was reached and
implemented, too much for me to explain fully here. Suffice it to say
that the disappearance of French, Italian, and Russian has resulted from
an almost complete lack of leadership at the Albany campus and in the
SUNY system. Our president, a former state pension fund manager, holds
an MBA as his highest degree, has never held a college or university
teaching position, and has never engaged in any kind of scholarship.

More disturbing still, due process was not followed in the
decision-making process. The affected programs were not consulted or
given the opportunity to propose money-saving reforms. Our Dean and
Provost simply hand-selected an advisory committee to rubber stamp the
president's decision. The legalities of the situation remain to be
discussed with our union, UUP, but in the meantime I welcome any advice
you may have.


Brett Bowles
Associate Professor of French Studies

01 October 2010

Strange conversation

You will have gathered from the lack of posts that I've been swamped lately. Exploding Head Month started early this year. But this afternoon I was working in a coffeeshop, and while I was in line for coffee, the following exchange took place:

Man Probably Younger Than I Am: Hi.

Dame Eleanor: Hi.

MPYTIA: Your hair is really misleading.

DE: Why is that?

MPYTIA: Because you look so young.

DE: [Absolutely refusing to touch the question of apparent or actual age] I think so many women dye their hair that a lot of people don't really know when hair starts to go grey.

At that point I got my coffee and went back to my table. And the conversation played over again in my head. Was MPYTIA saying . . . that I should dye my hair? That he was about to hit on me, until he realized that I'm probably a decade or more older than he is? That I am dressing too young for my age?

Should I have channeled Gloria Steinem and informed MPYTIA that this is what 40-whatever-I-am looks like?

19 September 2010

What kind of cardigan?

Lands' End is selling what they call the "Feel-Good Professor Cardigan."

Where can I get a "Hard-Ass Professor Cardigan"?

18 September 2010


This is an upper-division course.

It fulfills an English-major requirement in Literature Before 1500.

All the students in the class are English majors.

Assigned reading has included information about Chaucer's life.

I have been speaking of "The fourteenth-century this" and "The medieval that" for weeks.

Yet a paper from this class informs me that Chaucer "was from the 1800s."

14 September 2010

If the shoe . . .

. . . fits, wear it.

If the shoe doesn't fit and has to return whence it came, and if it was ordered as a Grading Bribe, then does that mean I can stop grading?

12 September 2010

Sucking less

And a tip of the hat to What Now for that motivational phrase!

I've been sleeping very badly lately (worse than usual), I think because of my schedule this term, which requires one day with a late night and another with an early start. These days are 3-4 days apart, so I'm always trying to adjust one way or the other, and that sucks quite a lot. So I've been dragging this weekend, and feeling very unmotivated, and with a headache to boot.

But two hours ago I decided I really had to suck less, and so in that time I have graded 5 short papers and written 458 new words that I realized the latest draft of the Current Project requires. The words suck, too; I will have to revise them and supply references and figure out Who Said That. They are, however, written, so that is a step in the right direction. In a perfect world I would have graded all of the papers in the last three days, or at least one section's worth; but in a perfect world, I would sleep like a baby* and not have headaches. So I think my next task is to get to the gym.

*Oh, wait. I think I do that already. I sleep for a few hours, and then I wake up hot, thirsty, and often hungry as well; or at least in need of a snack so I can take more ibuprofen without ruining my stomach. I only don't cry because I can get up and take care of myself. But it would be great if I could sleep through the night like a big person.

10 September 2010

An update

The shoes are on their way.

I have not yet started grading.

But I have finished working through the Current Printout of the Current Project! Its pages are now full of re-written bits and interleaved pages with more extensively re-written passages, arrows indicating pieces that need to move elsewhere, and only a handful of things to look up and fill in. I can start a new computer document for this revised draft. Who cares what number it is . . . I stopped numbering drafts awhile ago, and now save them by date rather than by number.

I have spent too long reading blogs and CHE fora threads. I need to stop looking at a screen and go do something IRL.

07 September 2010


So, wouldn't it make sense to order now the pair of shoes I want, so that when they show up it will be in the guise of a reward for grading the letters (coming in tomorrow) that start "hey" and "yo"?

They will also be wordy, have comma splices, not cite the MED when they ought to, and say things like "don't make a producing out of it," based on the sample paragraphs that have come in so far.

Have I been doing this gig for too long?

Or do I just not have enough shoes yet?

05 September 2010

First professorial whine of the term

What part of the instruction "write a letter" prompts the question, "Should I start 'Dear . . . '?"?

How do you usually start a letter?

Or would I rather not know?

03 September 2010

Not dead yet

I have not fallen off the face of the earth; I'm not even all that overwhelmed with the beginning of classes and trying to finish a draft of the Current Project before getting on with that pesky R&R (countdown in the sidebar). I just haven't had anything I wanted to blog about. Classes look okay so far, though I'm still struggling to retain some sense of denial that they have started. I'm working my way through the print-out of the CurPro, revising and expanding as I go, and finding considerable satisfaction in this work.

And I recently read a book I loved, and that I want to tell you about, although of course my musings probably won't make much sense until you read it. I found Rachel Ferguson's The Brontes Went to Woolworth's through a reference in a biography of Barbara Pym, which seemed to me an excellent recommendation. The Amazon summary is all right, but the comments there and some other online reviews seem to me to miss the point in various ways (the book was published in 1931, okay, so it's not describing 1930s London. Or maybe it's just that I am sufficiently steeped in 1920s British culture (thanks to my near-obsession with the Mitfords, Dorothy Sayers, and other high spots of the era, and my mother's obsession with the Brontes) that I don't read altogether as a twenty-first century reader. Or maybe being an English professor is good for something, even though professionally I deal with rather older texts.

Or maybe being a sci-fi/fantasy fan helps. The Brontes Went to Woolworth's reminded me very strongly of Diana Wynne Jones's The Time of the Ghost, another book I'm very fond of (and where I would quibble with the School Library Journal's review of it, quoted on the Amazon site). Why do people seem to think books should start with a clear expository statement of what is going on? Have they never heard of the principle in medias res? Part of the fun of reading is figuring out what's happening. "Cryptic communication" (SLJ about TotG)? Huh. If you divide your time between reading Middle English and reading Cherryh's Er-Series (as I call it: you know, ForeignER, DefendER, etc), with a dose of Mitfordiana somewhere along the line, the in-jokes of either book are no trouble at all. So, okay, that does rule out a lot of middle-schoolers, but I don't think I have any of them reading along here. And even if I do: learn to figure out what's going on from the context! Imagine that you're over-listening to a conversation you ought not to be hearing: how would you figure it out IRL?

Anyway, what strikes me most strongly about Ferguson's book is how much a product of its time it is, even as in many ways it anticipates current YA interests. In a world gone mad for vampires and other such critters, The Brontes Went to Woolworth's seems remarkably wholesome. I kept expecting it to be more menacing, to slide over into real spookiness, but instead its point (or one of them) seems to be to domesticate the uncanny, to say, "Look, whatever you call up with your imagination you can also tame, using your imagination." Despite my protests above, I do not read wholly as a 1930s reader: more recent fantasy literature, especially, has conditioned me to expect certain conventions being put into play. But those conventions were not in place for Ferguson. She's working with the conventions of her time, in which séances were a popular party game (see Unnatural Death), pierrots were glamorous figures (see Murder Must Advertise; and I must point that the pierrot figure is not the same as the lower-class comedian), and the music-hall was still a viable form of entertainment. The music-hall atmosphere is one of the elements that keeps this novel comic. As is the domesticity: the setting is definitely this-world, not other-world, mostly indoors or in the garden; and the girls' mother is a significant figure, in contrast to many similar stories where parents are dead, ill, or hopelessly distracted.

Byatt's The Game, to which she alludes in the introduction to the Virago re-issue of The Brontes Went to Woolworth's, is far more frightening in its treatment of where the imagination can take you, even though (or because?) it is a wholly realistic novel. Her short story about the little girls in war-time England who encounter Malory's Questing Beast (sorry, I can't remember its title) is a good example of how literature, reality, and imagination can intersect in the sort of chilling way I expected of Ferguson's book.

As for its classism, well, duh—what would you expect? Read as an anthropologist: this is how people of this time, class, and education thought. Byatt says when she first read Brontes . . . Woolworth's, she was hoping Love Would Conquer All, so Katrine would marry Freddie. I get a bit tired of that narrative. I thought the sisters had a good point about the lower-class in-laws Katrine would have had to cope with all her life (read the Mothers-In-Law thread over at the Chronicle if you don't think you marry a family as well as a spouse). Some people wouldn't mind that, but if you do, then you do, and better to think about it beforehand than to regret it afterward.

Basically, everything the reviews I've linked to criticize is IMO a point in the book's favor, and if you like Diana Wynne Jones and Dorothy Sayers, then you would probably like Ferguson. Or at least this book. I need to order myself some more Ferguson to find out if her other books are similarly delightful.

19 August 2010

Where Wednesday went

Writing on Monday and Tuesday this week was all new words; hence the grinding. But that saw me through a section, so yesterday I was able to move 1300 words in from another document and get the current draft of the Current Project slightly over 6000 words. It's a good thing I got to that point, too, because yesterday was a highly social day: after breakfast with a couple of friends, I spent the afternoon with the lovely and talented Rebelletriste and her charming twain. They are very happy babies, and they don't bite nearly as hard as Basement Cat (fewer teeth, which is to say none). The resident orange tabby is a lovable beast, too. I hope I didn't outstay my welcome, but the babies and their mom all seemed happy (or just have lovely manners), and I know I was enjoying myself.

So now I have to figure out what today's writing task is—probably more grinding out of new prose—and either write out assignments for the undergrads or devise the grads' syllabus. I got the undergraduate syllabi off my plate yesterday, no thanks to the Syllabus Fairy. Or, who knows, maybe she did help, because in the end the whole thing seemed to go more easily than I expected it to. OTOH, anything seems easy compared to the current state of scholarly prose production. I really do understand why some writers take to the bottle.

17 August 2010

The syllabus fairy

Despite my offer of fresh peach ice cream to Undine's syllabus fairy, she hasn't shown up. And neither have the writing elves. Apparently, I have to do everything myself.

Oh dear . . . what were Basement Cat and the Scot so intent on last night?

Any small supernatural creatures who would like to be helpful should probably bring Medieval Woman's ninjas along as bodyguards. What sort of horrible fate befalls people whose cats attack visiting Fair Folk? I can't recall any mention of this in the ballads, so maybe the elves and fairies do manage to look out for themselves. Then again, maybe those ballads just aren't extant.

Anyway, having ground out 515 words, I am going to have to turn my attention to class plans. I think the writing feels slow and hard in part because I am terribly conscious of having done less this summer than I would have liked. I wanted this piece to be done and gone before Leeds, and here I am still working on what is in effect a crappy first draft that will need substantial editing and cutting (though in cold fact it is not the first draft, no, nor the fifth; but let us not dwell on that).

Speaking of fifths, is it time for MFJ yet? I think it is. Time for something, anyway. Scripsi.

16 August 2010

Showing up

418 words. And ground out is what they were, while resisting that almost irresistable desire, etc. Ugh. But it's progress. I showed up, I was present, I practiced. I'm hoping that tomorrow I will feel a little more flexible, rather than stiff from today's effort.

15 August 2010

Early drafts

The earlier versions were too much like creating his own basic clay or metal to work with, and he wrote them with a sort of hatred. It always seemed too much, at that stage; a too heavy, brightly coloured mass which he could never hammer out thinly enough and he would struggle with this intractable first stuff for months, finding that what he wrote excluded what he had meant to write, and distorted what he would write next, and feeling all the time a nearly irresistable desire to get up, go away, postpone or abandon the whole business, so that every word was ground out only because he promised himself it was the last for that time . . . .

A. S. Byatt, The Shadow of the Sun

10 August 2010

More musings on metaphor

One reason I have resisted thinking about my work-metaphors is that I was repelled by Mayhew’s own concept of his work as competition (what a stereotypically feminine reaction, but there it is; and to be fair, he is aware of how this sounds). But he does suggest other comparisons for both writing in general and specific projects, such as exploration, which he then breaks down: atlas, or Triptik? And other ideas: a balancing scale? Do you have a thread (textile) or a trajectory (rocket science)?

Are such ideas useful? Would I somehow be a better (faster, more fluid) writer if I thought of my work metaphorically? I can see how it would be useful for the prospectus, or the abstract, to present the book/article in terms of trajectory, or conversation, or whatever. But for the writing itself? Mayhew claims that “metaphors can be useful for clarifying what it is you’re trying to accomplish,” that they will change as you work, and that using the wrong one can make your work harder. Let’s assume for a minute that this metaphor idea is some sort of magic trick that will make writing easier by clarifying the project (Mayhew certainly represents himself as exceedingly productive, though I think that’s mainly because he is compulsive in ways I don’t want to be, and does not lack for self-confidence).

I think I may do more metaphorizing my own relationship to my work: as in feeling that it has grown too large and unwieldy for me to tame. Recognizing that allows me to extend the metaphor: if the work is Bucephalus, then I am Alexander, the only one who can ride it; and, further, that makes me the chosen heir. But then that picture makes me nervous: what if I can’t tame it?

Perhaps a more mundane metaphor would work better. The project may be a field that has gone a bit wild and needs to be cleared for new cultivation: just keep picking up stones and ripping out brush, one thing at a time. Sheer persistence will get the job done. I feel that it is easier to show up, doggedly, day after day, to pick up a few more rocks than it is to show up to ride a wild animal.

What am I doing in the Current Project? Map-making seems like the most obvious metaphor: I am representing what is in the manuscripts, and making it possible for other people to navigate them. I want to show my own route of discovery, but I also want to leave a map that could be used by other scholars to take their own journeys.

Is this the best way to think about the project? What if it were a balancing scale; what things am I balancing? Manuscript study and literary criticism? Attitudes of original editor and recent MS-studies scholars? Coverage or depth? The focus is fairly narrow, really, bringing to bear various disciplines (linguistic analysis, MS study, some art history, literary criticism) to illumine (another metaphor!) the story in its physical context. Miscellany or coherent whole? I sure hope it’s a coherent whole. A thread or a trajectory? The textile image appeals more to me. I like the idea of working with cloth. And weaving bits together. Slots that can be filled with the appropriate content? Yes, sort of; I’m trying to think of the organization in that way, anyhow. Overlapping circles? Sounds messy; I like a more linear construction; and yet I always get in trouble trying to make things go linearly, so maybe thinking of the circles as a possible construction would be helpful.

Even more helpful, of course, would be to Just Do It instead of blogging about writing. But today is getting all carved up by waiting for a contractor, and then waiting some more, then actually talking with the guy, and in a little while having to load up a couple of cats for a shared vet appointment . . . so I'm working on syllabi, instead. Today I have a more positive reaction to the course outline I didn't like last week. It needed some tweaking, and may still need a little more, but I think the trajectory and amount of work (for me as well as students) now seems fairly reasonable.

And a final metaphor, one I find empowering: it is brain surgery. Finicky. Delicate. Important.

09 August 2010

Where the party never starts

I have not read this book. In fact, it's not officially out until tomorrow. I read a review of it this morning in the WSJ, though, and the review inspired me to say a few things.

(The WSJ site is subscription only, so I can't link; I read the hard copy to which Sir John subscribes. I like the WSJ because it filters the news through its economic filter, so I am rarely subjected to directly heartrending accounts of natural disasters, shootings, terrorist acts, illnesses, and so on, first thing in the morning when bad news can ruin the whole day. But its generally anti-intellectual, anti-university attitude irritates me no end, and I frequently fulminate to anyone who will listen about another idiotic editorial, letter, review, or story that blames professors for things that make no sense whatsoever. For instance, their "Dear Book Lover" column last week claimed that "the canon" is fixed because literature professors teach only what they were taught. Hello? If that were the case, "literature" would still consist of the Greek and Roman classics, in the original languages, and no one would ever study works written in any vernacular. And how does the soi-disant "Book Lover" think anyone manages to teach a course like "Literature Since Year X" where X is a value greater than the year in which the teacher graduated? Okay, let me stop ranting and get back to my main point.)

In fact, I have no opinion as to whether---or to what extent---the "party school" phenomenon is a serious problem. I have never either attended or taught at such a school. But IF it is a problem, and parents want to avoid sending their children to such places, I have a simple, low-cost recommendation: send your kids to a Large Regional University. There are lots of them around the country. Some are close to your home or places your extended family lives; some are in or near interesting cities, some are in beautiful countryside.

Their student population includes a lot of non-traditional students. Many if not most of these students are putting themselves through college. Some of them started at the usual age, then took time off. Some became freshmen in their 20s, 30s, 40s, or even later. Many of them have children, whether infants or college students themselves. A lot of them have extensive work experience. Some are military veterans. Some care for aged parents or grandparents. Some have health problems that mean they cannot "party" without sending their blood sugar haywire or rendering their medication ineffective.

These people value their education. They set a good example for everybody. They don't always have time to do all the homework, or they may have trouble balancing job, kids, grandparents, and schoolwork, but they do know what they're in school for and why it matters. They will tell a younger student whose parents are paying tuition that they wish they had all that time to concentrate on studies; they will make it clear what the personal and professional costs of not having a degree are; they will also suggest alternative careers if college really isn't right (or isn't right now). Students like these will teach a privileged SLAC-bound kid what the backbone of this country really is. And the faculty---thanks to the hideous job market---are as good as you will find anywhere.

Someone determined to party could probably manage it at LRU, to be sure; but that isn't really the ethos of the place.

I love my students (and this is a happy thing to think about, at the end of the summer when my reflexive reaction is not wanting to go back to the classroom). Sometimes I find them frustrating, especially when they don't have time to do the work or for reasons they don't want to go into, they just can't get it together. But what I really mean is not that I "love" them, in some gooey, emotional, nurturing way. I respect them. I like working with them. I love my job because I feel that working with these people is really worthwhile. SLACs have their place, and they may be the best place for a lot of students. LRU and its ilk, however, are a good place to work and a good place to study, and I wish more people thought about what the LRUs of this world have to offer, including what they might offer students who could afford to go elsewhere but might actually benefit from attending an LRU.

06 August 2010

More things done

Bills paid. Finished reading Shaping the Nation: England 1360-1461, which I've been working on all summer. It's 563 pages, and I read the whole thing. I've never been very good at "gutting" a book. I may try, but if it's at all interesting I wind up reading it properly, and thinking about it. I think I was better at skimming in graduate school, where (at least in the taking-classes stage) there were usually other people around reading the same things, and if I read only chapter 2 carefully, someone else had usually paid more attention to chapter 3, and so as we went around the table we'd all get a good sense of the book. Now, if I'm going to grasp anything, I have to do all the work myself.

And have talked to three contractors and need to return the call of a fourth. It's all progress.

As for the current project (have I managed to attract a Never-Ending-Project-Of-Doom here?), it still proceeds in fits and starts. As in, I start, and then something about it gives me fits. This morning I figured out the end of a marginal comment I hadn't deciphered before, which is totally immaterial as far as my argument goes, but gives me great satisfaction and makes me feel I've done something when I haven't, not really. I have also established that that comment is definitely not the same as another hand, which I knew, but now I can prove it. That is a very tiny step forward.

Jonathan Mayhew keeps writing about metaphors: for your book, for your writing process (same post), for your work. My initial reaction was to deny thinking metaphorically. And then I remembered the Octopus Touch, and what is that if not a metaphor? An unhelpful one, because while I'm sure octopoi are lovely when you get to know them, they're in my mental category of "things with too many limbs to be cuddly" and, in fact, when I pursue the image's associations in my mind, they include a giant octopus embracing a tiny schooner and pulling it down to Davy Jones' Locker. I do not want to be a sailor on that ship. Unfortunately, now that I have identified the octopus metaphor, the image persists. I am trying to find a more inspiring metaphor with equal staying power.

04 August 2010

One thing done

One of the Things I Had To Do For Someone Else is now finished. The reading didn't really take that long. I wrote 1400 words on it this morning (woke up before 6; I love it when that happens) and sent it off.

When I think about the time it took me, as opposed to the time it has been on the List of Stuff To Do and trying to get to other things first, I think, "I could have done that a long time ago." I know why I try to do other things first. The other things are supposed to be the important stuff. Do your own writing first, etc., etc. And some days, I do. But today it feels really good to have done something that will stay done, and not come back tomorrow demanding another 500 words or another bit of analysis.

The next thing today (after yoga, breakfast and cat-wrangling) has to be paying bills, which is another thing I've been dawdling about because of other stuff that has to get done. I'm really having doubts about this do-the-important-stuff-first routine. Heresy! Will I be burnt on a pile of 7 Habits and books by Boice? But how about getting some of the crap deadline-related stuff out of the way and then going on to play with research, feeling that it's the fun and interesting thing to do once your homework is done?

Sir John is back in the house (his absence was part of why Monday was difficult; it's much easier when we can divide responsibility for sick and well cats), and approves of the writing retreat idea. Once I get course assignments planned, so I know when I can take a grading-free weekend, I'm going to make a reservation for some very bland serene hotel 10-15 miles away from home, where for most of a day there will be no distractions and nothing to do but write. We'll see if this works. If it turns out I'm more productive in familiar surroundings with cats, then at least I'll know that.

03 August 2010

Cat update

Thank you for your good wishes!

The Scot is fine; he just gets collywobbles from time to time. He may be struggling to bring up a hairball. He and the Grammarian are both very good groomers, and groom each other, too, so there's a lot of hair going around. Once the Scot was observed to bring up a hairball consisting entirely of the Grammarian's fur. Now there's a good friend.

The Shakespearean Heroine is an old lady, suffering from some of the minor problems that old ladies often get, including constipation. (If you don't understand how that leads to the clean-up problems I had yesterday, I'm not going into it here. Ask your vet next time you're in, dear.) She is basically fine, but will be spending the next few days sequestered in my study so we can be sure she's pooping properly.

This sounds like the beginning of a tongue-twister: Portia pooped properly . . . .

Sorry. I've come to the conclusion that it is the human condition to have to talk about poop. If it's not worrying about the contents of diapers and the struggle to potty-train, then it's animals and aged parents. The only way to be refined is to be a childless, petless orphan, and even then, I bet the universe will swing around and hit you or someone you know well with IBS or something like that, just so you get your share. It gives me a certain insight into Chaucer's fart jokes.

And that, of course, leads me back to thinking about my fall courses. Maybe I'll write a bit to procrastinate on syllabi. Or vice versa.

Updated to add: I like my new yoga mat. But the Heroine peed on my desk chair.

02 August 2010

Ready for a drink at 9:30 a.m.; or, why I read mommy bloggers

The Scot got the day rolling by beginning to puke on the bed at 6:30; with my assistance, he hit the floor before actually getting anything up. Worse than that, though, it appears to be time for the Shakespearean Heroine's annual attack of gastritis. By 9:30 this morning, I had cleaned up four lots of vomit (from two different cats) and assorted other effluvia, and done two loads of laundry. I have been thinking for awhile that I would like a new yoga mat, but now I really want that new mat. As in, before tomorrow morning. And I just realized that I need to change my shirt. Excuse me a minute.

I wanted to start the first Monday in August with a calm, deliberate approach to my work, and now I'm off-schedule already and feeling rattled. For the mommy bloggers, this would be pretty much a normal day. The academic mommies would go on to send in a couple of grant proposals or polish off an R&R. What is wrong with me that a bit of puke and poop knock me off my game so fast?

In my own defense, one expects to change diapers for infants, and also can expect that job to cease in time. Cats have a reputation for cleanliness. I'm completely certain that the Heroine does not enjoy needing my help to clean up. And we are dealing here with a geriatric cat. The problems of geriatrics are always less attractive than those of babies, of whatever species.

So, I've held out till past 10. What is the appropriate beverage for this time of morning? Does Comrade PhysioProf advise MF Jameson's at every hour of the day, or is there something more suitable in the pre-noon hours?

31 July 2010

Cecily Chaumpaign

Geoffrey Chaucer hath a blog, as do Katherine Swinford and Gower (with guest posts by M. Francois Villon, even). Wherfor hath not Cecily Chaumpaign a blogue? Inquiring minds would like to hear from her.

30 July 2010

and dead things

I found a many-legged creepy-crawlie drowned in one of the cats' water bowls. Did it get there by itself, or did Basement Cat hold it under?


Rather than commenting on Undine's post, I'll do my own one. I am having a zombified day. I slept badly and feel very thoroughly brain-dead. I tried doing some class plans (on the theory that if I plan the semester when I feel like this, I won't give too many assignments to grade), but that didn't go too well.

I wish I could work well at night. Every now and then, especially after a zombie-day, I'll have a burst of useful energy in the evening. Mostly, though, if I don't write in the morning, it doesn't happen. My ideal schedule is the one I followed Monday and Tuesday this week, before the sleeping problems kicked in: up by 6, put in an hour and a half in my study, then do yoga before getting dressed and arranging breakfast for both me and the cats. After that I can go on to be productive in other ways, or to write more. But it does depend on going to bed early and sleeping well.

The big problem is that I can't arrange my whole life to allow me to go to bed by 10:00. Most of the LRU English Department's graduate classes, and some of its undergraduate classes, are taught at night. Sometimes I get lucky and get an afternoon grad class, but in most semesters I have at least one night a week where I'm on campus till what seems to me like a late hour, and then I still have to drive the hour home. Teaching leaves me wired as well as tired, so once I am home I can't go straight to bed; I need to wind down for a bit. Then if I want to experience Culchah, such as the Theatah or the Dahnse, or just go out with friends or engage in some organized activity, there's another night or several when I'm not going to bed in time to get up early.

So I've tried various tricks to make it possible to get writing done, such as my writing dates with a friend, which usually take place in the afternoon. Or I'll go to the library between classes (if there is a between-classes slot, which this fall there will not be). One of my old friends swears by doing all teaching prep on teaching days, and having the other days to do research; but this does not work if, due to a long commute, one's on-campus days are full of committee meetings, crucial library time (even just checking out and dropping off is not a zero-time activity), office hours and essential on-campus errands.

I envy night owls. I bet they think the world is set up for people like me, but I think a lot of things work better for them.

28 July 2010

Writing retreat

I'm starting to plan the fall semester. Starting is a key word here: so far, I have printed out some old syllabi to look over, re-read notes in my teaching journal from last fall, and begun my "teaching calendar": I take two of the big desk calendar pages, turn them over, and turn them lengthwise, so that the faint lines that show through create a 5x7 grid instead of 7x5. This amounts to 14 weeks of a 15-week plus finals-week semester, enough to figure out the shape of things. I've put in the dates that I have classes, but nothing else, so far.

I need to keep some research momentum going during the fall term, and to that end, I'm thinking about scheduling writing retreats a few times during the semester. I'd want to schedule those at the same time as I figure out when student work will be due, so I can keep certain times free for writing. Of course I will keep trying to write every day (or read, or add to my notes, or at least read over what I've written and perhaps edit a few words, to keep in touch). And I know regular incremental progress is supposed to be the way to go.

Sometimes, though, changing gears or changing scenery can give a person (or a project) a boost. I know there were two hotel rooms I walked into, in England, that made me think, "Ooh, can I just stay here and write?" The first was more picturesque, the second more comfortable and functional, organized for the business traveler. And on reflection (and after a night in each), if I were going to check into a hotel to write, I'd prefer the one aimed at the business traveler: better light, better work environment, more ergonomic furniture, better light-blocking blinds.

So I'm really tempted to plan to book myself into a hotel for a night, take a suitcase of books and all my latest printouts, leave the grading at home, and try to move a project forward as far as possible in the time available. There are some problems with this idea, though. One is check-in and check-out times, and my own natural rhythms: checking in at 3:00 would make the day nearly over for me, and I'd have only till noon the next day. What I really want is somewhere peaceful I could go from, say, 8:00 a.m. till 3:00 p.m., and then go home and sleep in my own bed.

Another option would be to go to a coffeeshop, of course, but although I find them quite conducive to a couple of hours of work, I don't think a whole day in one would work well. For one thing, they're not very secure; I'd like to be able to leave my suitcase of books and laptop while I go where even the empress must go on foot, which of course becomes necessary not too long after having a coffee. Similar problems apply to public and university libraries, which also have the much bigger problem of having stacks full of distractions. If I wanted distractions, I could stay home.

In theory, I could announce to Sir John that I was putting certain days aside for writing retreats, and that I was going to go into my study to work, and he should pretend that I wasn't home. In theory, he would be supportive of this. In practice, I can imagine many pitfalls to this approach, not least my own distractability. Even if I were pretending I wasn't home, I would hear cats mewing, or be seized by the irresistable desire to do laundry, or develop a computer problem that I really had to consult Sir John about, or notice a pile of grading.

I could also, I suppose, spend a night at a hotel in the town where I teach, work in the hotel until check-out time, and then go to my office. On, say, Friday afternoons, there wouldn't be many people around at work. The drawback to this is that I almost never do research in my office (one exception: working with LALME, whose volumes are too big to take home), so I'm not programmed to work there. In fact, rather the opposite: I'm programmed to meet with students there, and do service work, and prep classes. So I'm not sure that's a good idea, either.

Does anybody have any other ideas about how to arrange a term-time writing retreat? I don't want to spend more than one night away from home, if time away is required. Or is this just a pleasant fantasy I should use to fuel regular daily research sessions?

26 July 2010


Persistence counts for an enormous amount in academia. Intelligence, talent, and luck all play a part, of course, but sheer hard work (or just hanging in doing little pieces of work) can get you a long way. How many times have you heard the narrative of the Ph.D. who adjuncted and visited and finally, finally, got the tenure-track job?

There are a lot of ways to abandon the race (I'm still thinking in bicycling terms, and allow me to note that next year I'd like to see both Schlecks on the podium). And these may be "better" lives than staying in; it depends on what matters to you! Here are some abandonments I know of:
  • go to France to do dissertation research and never come back.
  • get a job as an editor and give up on the dissertation.
  • finish the dissertation, get seriously ill, get married, follow husband to his job; after recovery, raise children and adjunct.
  • finish the dissertation, get a job, hate it, go to law school.
  • get a job, write a book, get tenure, jack it all in to do something completely different.
  • get a job at a teaching-oriented school, mine excellent dissertation that could have been a book for enough articles for tenure, put energy into family and community life, eventually get into administration (not very happily).
I turned out not to be a high-flyer. I often wish I were more like a couple of people I went to graduate school with, who swoop and soar above me. But I am still here. I may be slow to publish, but I haven't given up. I don't want to give up. Sometimes I wonder if I should, but I don't want to. I want to keep doing my work.

In academia, there's always the hope that if you don't give up, eventually you will put your name on the map, somehow. I have a colleague whom I admire greatly because he has persevered at doing work he considers valuable even when he got no departmental support for it and at least one other colleague openly disparaged his obscure field. He knew what was important to him and didn't care at all what anyone else thought. One day he published a book with an important flagship press, and the department changed its tune about him. He continues not to care what anyone else thinks, and to work on what matters to him.

So today's slogan encapsulates these thoughts on perseverence, in a form borrowed from a friend who competes in triathlons: Dead Fucking Last is better than Did Not Finish is better than Did Not Start.

25 July 2010


During the Leeds conference, I enjoyed a couple of conversations with a woman who once taught in my grad program. She is both glamorous and enormously accomplished: speaks multiple languages fluently, has excellent Latin and Greek, attended one of those women's colleges that makes sure an alumna has the backbone of a mastodon, then racked up degrees from and jobs at a series of internationally-renowned universities. She does not suffer fools, gladly or otherwise. I don't think she has ever experienced a second of self-doubt, and, really, why should she?

It occurred to me that I could do with a dose of what powers her. When she sits down to write, I bet she looks forward to telling people what's what, rather than worrying about why anyone should listen to her.

What's more, I'm sure she never produces crappy first drafts: pearls of prose form effortlessly. But if she were me, with my methods of working, she would say, "Hey, this is what I do, and because it is mine, it is wonderful, and anyone who doesn't like it can shut up and keep shutting up until I have a draft, and then a revision, and then another revision. And now I will tell you what's what."

So this is one of my new self-motivating questions: What would D. do?

I don't know how long the effects will last (every trick loses its glamour eventually), but at the moment, channeling D. when I sit at my desk is a lot of fun! WWDD? Tell them what's what.

23 July 2010

Talking to Ralph and Tony

I'm going to blog a bit about my writing process, which may be repetitious for long-term readers, but I need to think some things through in order to explain them to the friend mentioned in the last post. It would probably be simpler to give her a name: let's call her Karine.

From the questions she has asked me, I suspect she's a top-down worker: she has an idea; she thinks about who else is working in this area; she reads around a bit to define the scholarly conversation she wants to enter; then she finds the evidence needed to support the idea, and starts writing to the scholars previously identified. And I know that Karine works on (or at least starts out with reference to) very well-known medieval authors: people with names! The sort of people that get a lot written about them.

I'm a bottom-up worker. I read something (something anonymous, something that doesn't get written about very often), and I say, "Huh. That's cool. There's this little bit here that makes me think. Oh, and now that we mention it, there's this other little bit that sort of goes with it." I assemble a vast lot of little bits that have to do with a topic, and stare at them for awhile. I do a bibliographical search, and very often, nobody has written about this precise thing, though maybe someone has written about it in a different anonymous text, or someone else wrote about a related thing in the same text.

So as far as entering the scholarly conversation, I often feel that I am in the position of waiting for a pause as people discuss, say, their vacations, and then saying, "By the way, speaking of vacation, it's going to be over soon and have you done your syllabi yet?"

In other words, I'm starting my own conversation, or picking up on one that was left hanging a long time ago. Try fifty years, in cases where the main discussion of a topic appears in the introduction to the edition, and nowhere since.

This is why thinking about audience makes me very anxious. Who wants to enter a party that's already underway, tap on a glass with a knife, and say, "Now we're going to talk about my thing!"? Hence my focus on my ideal audience. Ralph and Tony will understand where I'm going. I can sit down and write 500 words for them, without feeling that I'm interrupting anything.

In one sense, because the Current Project was conference papers last year, I'm already in the scholarly conversation. Certain other Names have asked interesting questions about the Current Project. Only, to continue the vacation metaphor, I'm talking about hiking in Scotland and they want to talk about hiking in Italy, or nightclubs in Glasgow. There's a connection, to be sure, but I don't have a lot to say about either Italy or nightclubs. Clearly the paper will need a paragraph or so on both topics, since my larger audience wants to know about these things, but basically I'm going to be saying "Here's why Italy isn't relevant and neither are nightclubs. Now, back to bagging Munroes."

At some point, of course, I will have to address the big-picture elements of audience, what critical discussion there is of my precise topic, how I relate Munroes to Italian mountains and Glaswegian nightclubs, and so on. I will undoubtedly have to get rid of quantities of niggling detail that I am presently explaining at excruciating length (I'm the party guest who bores on for hours about the precise locations of all the blisters I got and how I finally discovered this fantastic brand of hiking boots that don't rub my feet, while you look around frantically for rescue and eventually say brightly, "Is that the time?"). Droning on about the details is, nonetheless, an important part of my process. Ultimately, what I'm saying will have important implications about vacations. However, the nature of those implications---the nature of my argument---stands or falls on niggling detail. If the blisters are on the top of my foot instead of on my heel, the whole thing will fall apart. I have to be absolutely certain that the details are right and that each individual piece of evidence builds to the same conclusion before I can talk about the importance of the conclusion.

In short: I collect little bits of information. I arrange them in different ways until I see a pattern emerge. I write about the patterns. I figure out some other things I ought to write about, and produce a few unconnected chunks of writing about those things. I print out all the bits and look for patterns again, and make an outline. I produce a revised draft that puts all the pieces in what seems like the right order, including the chunks about other things. Then I revise the bejesus out of that, usually involving more struggling with the organization and exactly what the thesis is and where it should go. It takes a long time. Often it turns out that the real thesis is something sort of sideways on to what I thought the thesis was, and some other reader has to point this out to me. I used to mind this more. Now I think my job is to keep working on my mosaic pattern till the picture is clear from some angle, and if I'm not the first one to see it, that's fine. It's still my work and my picture.

I have tried other methods. But I'm not comfortable with them. My process may seem unnecessarily baroque, even painful, to a top-down thinker. It's how I work, though; I'm used to it. I still wonder if I might someday discover a better way, some quicker and easier path to a finished product. Writing seems to be difficult (in different ways, perhaps) for many of us. At this point in my life, it seems simpler and faster to work the way I work than to try to be someone else for awhile and then fall back on the way I work. And what I'm aiming for now is the revised draft with the pieces in the right order.

22 July 2010

RBO Catching up

  • I've been home for just under 24 hours.
  • I've been up for 6 hours, after four and a half hours sleep, 2 and a half hours up, 5 hours dozing, and a few hours before that watching DVR'd Tour de France coverage and complaining about how tired I was.
  • In those 6 hours, I have (among other things) gone for a walk, discovered that my ATM card had expired, found the new one and activated it, written 440 words, satisfied assorted cat needs, and checked e-mail.
  • In that time, I have not responded to student e-mails about next fall (la-la-la can't hear you, there must be more than a month before classes start, please, please), filed anything else from the boxes I left in my study, unpacked any more than I did yesterday, made a schedule for the next month (please let there be more than a month, please), got cash, done yoga, been to the gym.
  • I felt good about my 440 words until I checked e-mail. I have to submit something to my writing group (had forgotten that but meant to do it awhile ago so now I feel that sort of guilty panic even though, really, it's fine); and the friend to whom I sent this essay at roughly its 2000-word point wants to know who the intended audience is. I have been following what I think is advice from Julia Cameron to write for your ideal audience: so, okay, Ralph Hanna and Tony Edwards. Hi! Does anybody else want to listen in? Do you need more information? Okay, could you just hold questions till the end, because I am going to go totally fucking insane (a la Comrade Physioprof) if I can't get a complete draft of this damned thing done before school starts (in a month? say it ain't so). I can cope with revising after that, but I want to finish something besides syllabi this summer. So if talking to Ralph and Tony is what will get me through that, then I am talking to them and we'll worry about other people later.
  • Actually, I can't cope with revising after that, because I have committed to finishing a very old R&R by the end of the fall term, and I just this minute remembered two more Very Important Things I have to do for other people before the term starts, if not by the end of July.
  • Excuse me while I go panic. I will multitask by doing it in the pool, because that might calm me down a bit and even if it doesn't, I will at least be exercised. I mean, I already am, in the mental sense (clearly).