31 December 2011

What the hell: celebrate!

Looking at some other blogs tonight, it seems that 2011 is getting mixed reviews. I don't have any special attitude toward it: certainly not one of my worst years, but it doesn't stand out particularly either. It was a year. I've had almost 50 of them. At this point, I'm happy just to be here and healthy.

But hey, it's New Year's Eve, and one of my basic principles is that Any Excuse Is A Good Excuse for champagne. Although we're staying in tonight (working crossword puzzles, watching some B5, the usual sort of quiet happy Hull evening) and will quite likely be in bed before midnight, we toasted the New Year as it came into London and I'm still slightly tipsy. Love the lovely champers.

So happy New Year to both regular readers and anyone who just stops by! I hope 2012 brings you good things, or at least Sucks Less (hat tip to What Now). Hope for the future is always worth celebrating. Enjoy the real or virtual bubbly, and come back soon for the next WWW post.

29 December 2011


An interesting discussion is going on towards the end of the comments to my last post, about whether academic schedules are flexible, how flexible one should be in scheduling oneself outside of what one's college requires ("mindful inflexibility," in Sitzfleisch's marvelous phrase, is one possibility), and similar topics, so let's haul it out into a post of its own.

Here are my thoughts, probably rather jumbled:

Academic schedules are in some ways completely inflexible. When you're scheduled to teach a class, you have to show up. Sure, it's possible to get a sub every now and again, or show a movie, but at the college level, who is going to substitute? A professor, by definition, is the ranking expert on a topic in a department. In larger departments, you may actually have three or four people who cover the Renaissance and can substitute for each other (even if one really specializes in religious prose, s/he can probably manage a Shakespeare course for one day), and in smaller departments, you may have a larger proportion of generalists, but by and large, if you're teaching in your area, then it's you who needs to show up, and if you don't, you'd better be pretty damned sick or pretty damned well required to be elsewhere. (Graduate students may be another option to cover a course, but again, you have to both be in a department that teaches grads and have a grad who knows enough to teach a class on the scheduled topic.)

Thus, everything else in your life works around your course schedule. You don't take half a sick day to go to the dentist unless you're in agony. If you're scheduled to teach at 8:00 a.m. or 7:00 p.m. or whatever other time, you have to be there. Sometimes, as in my first semester in my job, you're scheduled for 6-9 one evening followed by 9-10 the next morning, which can be rough, as Dr. Crazy recently attested. Of course there are people outside of academia who do night work, or work rotating shifts, as nurses and firefighters, for example, sometimes have to. But mostly people with office jobs work something like 9-5, maybe 8-6 or some other minor variation.

There are some schools that require so many office hours that you're going to be on campus effectively 9-5, M-F. There are some departments with control-freak chairs who insist that their faculty be on campus 9-5, M-F (I'm told that there was one such in LRU's English department, before my time; the night owls were profoundly relieved when he stepped down). If you're in the sciences, then you may need to be in the lab for long and regular hours.

But in the humanities, you don't need a lab or special equipment. You really just need books, paper, and something to write with; or maybe you need a computer, but we (academics) nearly all have our own personal computers and/or laptops and/or tablet computers, these days. And that means we can work anywhere, anytime.

Therein lie both problems and opportunities. If people are always dropping into your office to shoot the breeze when you're trying to grade or do research, then of course you want to go to the library, the coffeeshop, or your home office so you can get something done. If you're a night owl then you want to work noon to nine, or even six p.m. to three a.m.; if you're a lark, you may long for a five a.m. to one p.m. schedule and be totally done in by those night classes. If (like me) you dislike shopping in crowds, then you want to get your errands done early when the stores are quiet, even though that ruins a morning's work time, because shopping on a busy Saturday afternoon is such a nerve-shattering experience. And so there you are working on Saturday afternoon because you need to make up for the morning you spent on important Life Maintenance tasks.

I have observed that people who spent two-three years in the office world, working 9-5 (or similar) really are better at organizing their time and sticking to schedules than a lot of the career-academic types. Shorter periods don't tend to be so instructive. In the year I took between undergrad and grad school, I did have a 9-5 job. I also had two other part-time jobs, one Tuesday evening and Saturday morning, and one that was MWTh evenings and sometimes weekend afternoons, and on my lunch breaks and on the bus I studied Latin. After that, my grad school schedule was a breeze.

So if you're an organized academic, then you work out your mindfully inflexible plan: Monday 7-9, 1-7; Tuesday 7-8, 10-5; Wednesday 7-8, 1-10; Thursday 1-5; whatever it may happen to be that gets you to your classes, your meetings, your research time, your grading time, your dentist appointment, your grocery shopping, and your exercise time. (What exercise time? some of you say. Well, some of us would be incapable of work if we didn't work out, so we find it. Here again, there can be flexibility: I've read a lot of academic books and articles on the elliptical trainer or exercise bike, though the treadmill doesn't work so well for reading and the pool is right out.)

If you're not so organized, or if life circumstances conspire to ruin your plan, then there you are, working at midnight on Saturday to make whatever deadline it is this time.

So, go ahead: are you flexible, inflexible, rolling with the punches, powering through on caffeine, forced by health considerations to look after yourself, sandwiched between your small children and your aged parents so that you get your work done in doctors' waiting rooms and on planes, early-career working 80 hours a week to get your prep and research done, late-career and able to say No and focus on your own priorities? What do you do, what would you like to do, what do you observe your colleagues doing, what advice would you give others?

26 December 2011

Big changes or small ones?

Time for another Monday check-in and goal-setting. I'm not going to call roll; we'll take care of attendance via in-class writing. If you're here, leave a comment.

The usual advice about making changes in one's life is to start small and be specific. Rather than saying "get healthy" or "lose 50 pounds," you're supposed to to say "I will walk for 10 minutes a day" or "when I want a cookie, I will eat a piece of fruit first." Small changes add up, and little shifts like more exercise and more fruit can lead to larger lifestyle differences. Some of you are thinking along these lines, like Z's resolve to work 25 minutes a day for three days.

I have myself found that these small changes can be helpful and long-lasting. That said, sometimes it's more helpful to make one single big decision rather than trying to work out a lot of small stuff. For instance, if you're capable of quitting something cold turkey, well, that's a decision made that you never have to revisit. You'll never again smoke a cigarette, have a drink, eat meat, whatever. When you're tempted, you say you've made that decision, it's not negotiable, you're not revisiting it.

This does not work for everyone, or in all circumstances.

Possibly it's not going to work for me this time, either, but I'm going to give it a shot this week. This is my big change: I'm going to work from 9-1, Monday to Friday. Everything else has to get done before or after that. Exercise, cat wrangling, phone calls, blogs, paying bills, novel reading, sorting closets, meals, shopping, cooking, if it's not work, it has to happen before 9:00 a.m. or after 1:00 p.m. What's more, I'm not going to do work outside of those four hours, either (that's the part that really freaks me out, actually). Afternoons and evenings will go to fun stuff or at least life-maintenance stuff.

I'm tired of trying to work out the optimum schedule, of trying to figure out whether, when I get up, I should first write, go for a walk, do yoga, feed cats, or hit the gym. Since fall classes ended, what happens first generally depends on what time I wake up and whether or not it's sunny. Clearly I'm capable of sticking to a schedule when I have to, because I always show up on time for my classes. I have written before about enjoying the flexibility of academic life, but I think I should give inflexibility a chance, for once. Nine-to-one, some translation, the MMP, some class planning, some other academic work, and then I'm done. We'll see how it goes for a week.

So what are you going to do this week? Make a small change? Try a bigger one? Keep doing something that has been working? Sometimes it's good to stick to what works, and sometimes it's good just to change things up so you don't get stale.

22 December 2011

Weak, grouchy, grinchy, whiny SAD post

I'm not sure what sort of strength it is to suffer from seasonal affective disorder. Maybe the other side is the energy I have from April to October, or that I would be a superhero if I could just live in the right climate. But at the moment, that last post is sitting here mocking me, so I'm going to try to exorcise the grumps with a new entry.

The good news: the Solstice has passed. Tomorrow will give us five whole seconds more daylight than today. But it is getting better. For the next six months, every day will be lighter (though it will take 6-8 weeks to get out to where the difference is really worthwhile, and three months till I will shift gears into summer-light mode).

Also good: in a few days, I will be able to go out without hearing trite Christmas music everywhere. Tomorrow is one bit of family festivity (preceded by the dentist, oh joy), and the 24th is another (preceded by baking for it); then on the 25th we can go to a movie and veg out and then the horror will be over for this year.

The bad: now it's winter. And we have grey, dank, drizzly weather. I want sun. I'd take snow over this dreary version of winter. Snow is bright. And Sir John loves it, so at least one of us would be happy and one would be several degrees less wretched.

Time passes. The holidays will pass, the weather will pass, the winter will pass. Soon enough, I'll have to show up for classes and act like I'm in my right mind, which will help; and before we know it, spring break will arrive and then it will be conference season.

It's just these short days that seem so long. So dreary, and so pointless. Even with my full-spectrum light, and exercise outdoors early in the day, and more exercise, and baking and so on. Maybe I should just start going to Morocco by myself.

19 December 2011

Our strengths are our weaknesses

I believe this is true in all areas of life. The key is to find a way to make your weaknesses serve you. Jonathan Mayhew has a number of posts about taking inventory, establishing your scholarly base, and so on; if you’re not familiar with the concept, maybe you’d like to check out some of his ideas this week, and think about what your strengths and weaknesses as a writer are.

One of my strengths is an ability to write quickly. One of my weaknesses is trouble organizing an argument, or even coming up with an argument in the first place. These may not be exactly the two sides of the same coin, but they are related: I can easily produce a lot of verbiage that doesn’t really go anywhere, although it sounds plausible if I run it by you quickly, as in a conference paper. But coming up with an argument (beyond, “Wow, this is cool!”) and getting it organized, this is hard, slow work for me (not least because I don’t always know a good argument when I have one).

During this intersession, then, I’m trying to harness the strength to make up for the weakness. What the MMP really needs is a strong framework to support all its details: an overview of the fields where this research matters, and a clear statement of how the MMP contributes to these fields. I made a list of the topics the MMP might contribute to, and I’m using the writing-quickly strength to produce around 500 words on each of the topics. Sometimes it turns out that I have more ideas than I thought I did; sometimes I just come up with questions that I can’t answer without doing more research. But if I can identify the questions sooner rather than later, that’s a good thing.

So: can you use the idea of making your strengths serve your weaknesses, or turning a weakness into a strength?

Roll call, based on the latest info I have from you all:

ADM: finish grading, then get Rewrite.

Contingent Cassandra: 3 or so short writing sessions per week.

DEH: Last week’s goals were to work 2 hours a day and do three 500-word directed free-writing sessions.
Achieved: work was intermittent because of illness, but I have done three 500-word directed freewriting sessions (actually 545, 624, and 604 words). They were supposed to be on particular topics, but kept drifting back to my central questions, What can we tell? and Why do we care? I’ve come up with new questions, whose answers (when I find them) may help with the central questions.
New goals: one library day (check out books, consult reference works), another day or half-day if possible before Wednesday (then the library will be closed till January). Read and take notes on at least 3 books/articles. Start working on an outline, using the format that worked for the sections-turned-chapters of the Unexpected Book.

Digger: finish schoolwork by 20 Dec. Then, finish the Why Wheels chapter.

EAM: lit review.

GEW: I'd like to read 30 pages of primary text and and freewrite for 15 minutes at least four times during the rest of the week. In addition, I will decide which texts to take with me on my trip (space is limited!).

Highly Eccentric: at least 1/2 a day every day to finish a chapter by 3 Jan.

Ink: finish grading. Then revise previous novel chapters, write two new chapters, put in two hours a day.

Luo Lin: make plan.

Matilda: finish encyclopedia entries, 2 hours a day.

nicoleandmaggie: finish a draft.

Profacero: at least 25 minutes of work by Monday night.

rented life: finish grading. [For 2-week break: 44 hand-written pages (small journal sized pages) that need to be typed up and then I need to compile it with what I already have written and see where my (fiction) project is going]

Sapience: finish re-reading my primary texts (14 novels total, 10 to go) and outline the rest of my argument.

Sisyphus: find/collect everything I need for the article and pack it. And refresh my article to-do list.

Sitzfleisch: complete academic book proposal due in January.

Theologoumenathon: lit review for my next project.

Trapped in Canadia: read and review one book and finish the book chapter about my mob. My goal is to write two hours a day, but three hours would make me super happy.

Waytogohomesteader: write a page a week.

Zcat: goal for week one is to write 500 words a day.

16 December 2011

If you're writing over break . . .

and if you were starting with the Winter Writing Workshop this week, then it's Friday already, and that means that in 3 days we'll be doing the next week's check-in.

If you're still grading, GOOD LUCK! Hang in there! It will get done, the students will go away, time to breathe and write and exercise and eat holiday cookies is right around the corner.

Now, I've been sick all week, and all I've done so far in the way of work is a bunch of conference-related stuff. Well, and about 600 words of notes on a book, plus reading some articles I didn't take notes on and probably should have. But I haven't done any actual MMP-writing, not even the directed free-writing I assigned myself, so I'm thinking that it's time to start.



Because though I'm still not all well, at the moment I can breathe, and my eyes don't burn, and so I am going to do a bit of writing. So I'll have something to report on Monday.

And so I am posting this not only for my own accountability, but to point out to anyone else in the WWW who might be in the same position that we still have a few days (and anyone who's buckled down and got way ahead can gloat a little bit—yeah, go ahead, you know you want to).

15 December 2011

What we teach when we teach Chaucer

"Chaucer" to most people means the Canterbury Tales. But should it? Over the years, I think I've taught every Chaucerian work in the canon, except for "A Treatise on the Astrolabe" and "Anelida and Arcite," at least once, and yes, I do include the Melibee in that list. For graduate classes, the syllabus has varied more widely than for the undergrads—even though many grads have not had any undergrad Chaucer, or even any undergrad medieval lit, so there is an argument for giving them a "standard" Chaucer, too.

If there is such a thing as a "typical" undergraduate Chaucer course in my repertory, it tends to include several of the Canterbury Tales plus one of the less famous texts, usually either Troilus and Criseyde or the Book of the Duchess. Lately I've just been doing Canterbury Tales and short lyrics.

My recent trawl through other people's syllabi suggests a fairly even division between CT-only courses and CT-plus-Troilus courses. It has been a few years since I last taught Troilus, and I want to bring it back. In fact, I want to make it the main focus of the class, because I think then I could structure the course in a way similar to the way I structure my Arthurian class, which usually goes much more smoothly than the Chaucer classes: begin with a modern translation of an early source (Latin or OF), and only deal with Middle English after the broad outlines of the plot have been digested. This also allows me to introduce close reading through analyzing different translations of a single Latin sentence, along with a representation of that sentence accompanied with a super-literal translation plus parsing; after that, the whole idea of the close reading goes a little better.

But since people seem to think "Chaucer = Canterbury Tales," I suppose I had better include some of them. Let's put it this way: what tales would you be absolutely shocked to learn that an English major didn't know? Channel your inner old fart, and comment.

Or, if you're not amused by fart jokes (some Chaucerian you are, in that case), which tales "go" best with TC? (Your litel tragedie, does it go? Bet it does, bet it does!)

12 December 2011

Time is not infinitely elastic

Welcome to the Winter Writing Workshop! Most of you have a clear goal that sounds reachable in 4-6 weeks’ steady work. Some of you may still be doing triage: what absolutely has to be done, now? How much distraction will there be from holiday shopping and parties, or from job market angst and conference-going? How much time do we need for getting back to a good exercise routine, or for excavating the laundry pile, or any other necessary real-life activities?

So let me urge you to Pick One. We all have lists. Give yours the hairy eyeball.

But first, think about your time. How many weeks do you actually have? Where will you be during that time? How much time must you spend on non-work activities? How understanding is your family about your need to work during “vacation”? Winter breaks can be hard to work in, because they’re short, they involve holiday stress, they come at what for most of us is a cold, dark, depressing time of year (Zcat, can all of us with SAD come and visit you down under?), and our libraries and universities may close to save money during at least part of them.

So, can you schedule two hours a day in a coffee shop? Can you put in four hours a day at home? Do you reliably have one hour in the evening, and other less predictable time here and there? Add up that time first; then look at your list again, and figure out which item you can do in that amount of time.

Consider, as well, your longer-term goals and term-time work habits. Will you be better served by getting an ugly rough draft of something that is now only notes, so you can revise it when you go back to teaching? Or would you prefer to get something almost-ready revised and out the door before you go back?

Make a plan, and post a comment about it. And again, welcome. Turn on your broad-spectrum lamps, crank up the space heaters, pour yourself a drink and stick a little paper umbrella in it, and we’ll all pretend we’re writing around the pool at some tropical resort. (If you actually like winter, carry on, but don’t tell me about it.)

My goal is to read/write at least 2 hours a day. Four will be ideal. But if I do two, that's enough. Because, you know, the gym, the excavation, and so on. I'd like to turn this into a game, and see how many days and weeks I can get up to four.

The current participants:

Another Damned Medievalist (hereafter ADM): finish revisions

Contingent Cassandra: finish article

Digger: finish project

Good Enough Woman (hereafter GEW): not come to a standstill

Elizabeth Anne Mitchell (hereafter EAM): lit review

Highly Eccentric (Naked Philologist): either atoning for sins or committing more; I can’t tell.

Ink: fiction?

Matilda: finish draft of paper

nicoleandmaggie: finish draft?

Sapience: article due 15 Jan.

Sisyphus: finish article

Theologoumenathon: hang onto groove

Trapped in Canadia: finish book chapter

Zcat: Finish article

Updated to add:
Luo Lin: finish article

Profacero: resubmit one article (that might be two combined, or two separate)

11 December 2011


I keep saying that I think my students' trouble with ME is not so much ME as small vocabularies in PDE. I'm still working my way through the last batch of translations on the final exam (while wiping my nose, and sneezing, and feeling generally yucky), and I started making a list of perfectly good words that more than one person is having trouble recognizing:

adversity, arse, assent, aught, churl, deem, ere, grisly, haunch, privily, proffer, suffer (in the sense of "allow"), sunder, twain, villainy.

"Arse" keeps coming out as "ears." It's not like we didn't talk about what happens in the Miller's Tale.

Then there are a couple of phrases that I think of as somewhat archaic, but still, I would have expected them to be recognizable to English majors: "must needs" and "plight troth."

I'm thinking next year's exam will have fewer chunks to translate and a very strong insistence on producing grammatically correct sentences that make sense in PDE.

10 December 2011

Weekend bullets

  • Sir John has had a cold for several days. I think I'm finally getting it. So I'm staying up late to try to finish grading before I feel awful.
  • Of course I should have finished already.
  • Why, with all the "teaching to the test" that presumably happens in schools these days, can my students not manage to read and follow simple instructions?
  • Grading the outlines of essays (on exams) goes much faster than grading translations.
  • I can't believe I made it through the whole semester without getting sick; but then, why now? Why could I not just avoid illness altogether?
  • I would much rather be working on the MMP, and this morning I procrastinated for awhile by staring at handwriting snippets trying to decide if one A resembled another. Or not.
  • On a related handwriting question, I found a reference to an opinion of Ian Doyle's that was . . . wrong. Not in a major way, but he left out a perfectly legible* letter. My world reeled.
  • *Perfectly legible if you read English secretary hands.
  • Every time I look at an example of secretary, I panic and think all my skills have fled, or maybe I was deluding myself all along. It takes several minutes to get my eye in and start seeing the shapes again.
  • Really I should be thinking big-picture thoughts about the MMP, not tiny-detail thoughts. Have I mentioned that I'm nearsighted?
  • Must finish grading translations. Then if I'm sick tomorrow I can spend days lying on the couch watching B5 DVDs and drinking toddies, guilt-free.

08 December 2011

Winter Writing Workshop with the Dame

In the last ADNWG meeting of the fall term, I proposed a six-week winter intersession group for those of us who are trying to get some writing done over the holidays.

I'm in it because, as long-term readers know, I hate cold, winter, and the December holidays, and since I can't spend the entire month in Morocco or Malaysia, I'm going to distract myself this year with the Macedonian Marginalia Project, an article I had hoped to finish over a year ago.

It seemed so simple when I started; but this week when I was looking up call numbers for books I need to check out for the MMP, in addition to my usual DA, PR and Z suspects, we also have DF, LC, and Q. This probably says something about the complexity of what I'm trying to do.

So, anyway, this post is the invitation, advance warning, whatever you want to call it. Starting Monday, 12 December, when my grades have to be in, I'm going to post weekly goals and progress reports for myself. LRU starts up again the day after MLK Day, so January 16 will be the official end of the intersession. However, I expect I'll still be tinkering (how I hope it's only tinkering) till the end of January, so there will be a couple more "unofficial" Monday posts where late papers can trickle in.

I know we're not all on the same schedule; some of you may still be teaching. So this workshop will be less structured than ADNWG. You can start late and finish late, or drop in for three weeks and then drop out again.

If you're interested in taking part in the Winter Writing Workshop, please leave a comment, and I'll post the starting list of participants and goals on Monday.

05 December 2011

Guiding independent research

This is really a question. I've had a couple of independent studies/capstone projects to supervise this fall, and will have a couple more in the spring. It has occurred to me that I would like to assign a book that would help guide students through the research process. The books I'm most familiar with focus more on writing literary essays; I'd like something geared to the humanities a little more generally, and to the "research paper" of 15-20 pages, that might include elements of literature, history, and art history. How to read around a topic and then focus the reading, how to develop research questions, these are more important than details like citation style. Any suggestions?

04 December 2011

Thys may wel be rym dogerel

In th’olde dayes of the Teching Kynge,
Who knew best how to manage everythynge,
This land was filled of grading fayerye.
Th’endityng elves, with her compaignye,
Daunced ful ofte on many a scolar’s book,
Esily seen by any that myght look.
This was the olde opinioun, as I rede;
But now the worde is come that elves be dede.
For now the service and utilité
Of Blacke Borde and such futilité
That filleth every classe and every halle
As thikke as leves that in autumn falle,
This maketh that ther ben no fayeryes.

Very bad news from the Chron fora

Not that I've ever got the grading fairy to show up, but I always thought the cats frightened them off. I can't bear to think there just aren't any. And for such a lousy reason, too.

At least I'm making grading progress on my own.

« Reply #220 on: December 02, 2011, 03:02:46 PM »

Will the grading and final writing fairy come if I take the afternoon off for beta testing a game?

The last known member of that particular species of fairy was throttled to death during a regional assessment committee visit to a formerly pleasant campus. Rumor says that the murderer was a member of SACS.

03 December 2011

Steps in grading

1. Assemble papers.
2. Open Windows Media Player; plug in headphones and un-mute the computer.
3. Find new purple pen.
4. See if anyone has added a comment to ADNWG's end-of-term post.
5. Check to see if anyone else has updated a blog. Consider saving new posts to read during breaks from grading after actually doing some. Read blog entries anyway.
6. Count papers in stack.
7. Check the Chronicle fora, especially the Thread of Grading Despair and Paralysis Analysis, to see who else is grading right now.
8. Eat chocolate.
9. Check current Lexulous game(s).
10. Start music. Read first page of top paper.
11. Worry about unfinished book review.
12. Finish reading first paper.
[13-17: Repeat steps 4-8.]
18. Worry about needing to order ILL books for winter writing project so they'll show up before the library closes over Christmas, and whether it would be better to do that now or keep grading.
19. Grade more papers.
20. Take longer break: cook and eat a meal, say.
[Repeat steps 4-10; expand 5 into checking out blog links never before clicked on and going into the archives of some previously known blogs.]

30 November 2011

The Place: Babylon-5

When it was first on television, Sir John and I watched B-5 regularly, and soon started taping episodes if we couldn't watch them live. We loved that show. Several years ago, he gave me Season 2 on DVD. We were on vacation at the time of the gift, and although we watched a few of its episodes then, once we were home again we lapsed. For the last couple of years, there's always been so much on the DVR that we rarely watch anything on DVD.

But over the Thanksgiving break, we broke out B-5 and have been galloping through that second season (I'm hoping to get more for Christmas this year). It's a great show. Watching a lot of episodes all at once makes clear how carefully planned it all was, and how significant clues were planted early on. You forget that kind of thing when you see one episode a week.

I'm loving it, but there's one thing about the show that's really making me crazy, and that's how . . . chick-flick-ish it is. I can't think of any better term for it. The human characters are always going on about their feeeeeelings. Every episode, someone says some variation of "Do you want to talk about it?" ("I'm here if you want to talk about it. If you want to talk, I'll listen. How do you feel about that?") Tough guys always have a marshmallow interior and have to reveal their vulnerabilities. Dysfunctional family situations can be fixed if a victim of bullying will just tell the bully s/he loves him. People in dysfunctional relationships of any kind regret not telling the other person they loved them before it was too late.

Well, I'm not that much of a chick. I'd like the humans to shut up and kick some alien ass. Or at least conspire and back-stab and mutter about dark political plots, or even dark mystical forebodings, the way G'Kar does. The "aliens" (except for Delenn) are way better about getting on with things instead of emoting.

Maybe it was a nineties thing. Maybe the writers read too many self-help books. Maybe it was an attempt to get female audiences into sci-fi series. Whatever. This female was begging Steven Franklin to grow a pair and tell his dad to fuck off instead of longing for his approval. Acting like a victim is the perfect way to get a bully to keep bullying you. With some people, using your words just doesn't work.

I guess there's a reason sci-fi and fantasy are shelved together.

26 November 2011

Random bullets of November

I'm feeling unimaginative lately, which is why I haven't posted anything. I'm not even desperately busy; indeed, if I were, I'd probably have more heretical ideas about teaching, or more updating about writing projects, or whines about committee meetings. But we're just chugging along here. Nonetheless, just to prove I'm still alive in the blogosphere:

  • The Grammarian is a very strange sort of picky eater. He meows piteously for food. I put down a plate with his usual food on it. He stares at it in horrified disbelief and informs me that I am trying to poison him, he can't eat this slop, he has been miserably betrayed by someone he had trusted to have his best interests at heart, etc. etc. I run my finger through the food, force his mouth open and smear it on his tongue, whereupon he says, "OMG cat fud!!! Why u not SAY so?" and sets to.
  • Why is it so hard to find a financial-advice book that will just answer some simple questions (or at least run through a list of things to think about when considering various situations) without a lot of touchy-feely claptrap? With all due respect to the Grumpy Pair (and that's quite a lot of respect) and their enjoyment of Your Money or Your Life, I'm quite clear on my values and my risk tolerance, I am very well aware of the costs of my commute, and I don't want to live in jeans and thrifted clothing making my own bean soup like some damned hippie (grumble grumble), except on maybe one weekend a month, because I do, after all, hail from hippieville and the apple doesn't fall that far from the tree. Suze Ormond, a recommendation from someone else, also has a lot of "spiritual" blah-blah. I just want to know, hypothetically, how to balance the tax advantages of having a mortgage plus a larger lump sum in the bank against not having a mortgage and having a smaller lump in the bank. Sure, it's a nice hypothetical problem to have. How do I approach it?
  • In these days of miracle and wonder, the long-distance call and e-mail, it is a complete delight to get a hand-written letter from an old friend. Such a sense of intimacy and connection! It's enough to make me contemplate sending a few Christmas Solstice cards.
  • One more week of classes. Just three days of actually meeting students. But OMG that means I have to invent a final exam right quick.
  • I am never going to get involved in conference-organizing again. Be it resolved.
  • Writing update: I have now drafted two chapters of the Unexpected Book. Both need work, especially with source material, but the basic argument is in place. I think I am going to use the winter break to try to finish an article (the MMP) that should have been finished a year ago; my library now has a reference work I need, so that should help a bit, except that the library will be closed for a couple of weeks (where are the foreign/broke graduate students supposed to go???). I will need to cannibalize that chapter for a conference paper this spring (and I think I should get at least some of the source material worked into that paper), and I have another conference paper to write, so making this decision makes me a little nervous: I'd rather like to do those things first. OTOH, conference papers don't have to be as complete or as polished as full articles, and I do have the chapter as a base for the one; so I think I can do those things while teaching, whereas the MMP needs some undiluted thinking time. And it would be so great to get that particular monkey off my back.
  • Now that I mention it, getting the MMP out ASAP is a great idea because if I can get an R&R within six months, I can work on it in the summer while I will have access to the relevant manuscripts. Be it resolved.

20 November 2011

Give yourself a holiday

I make papers etc. due after holidays (Thanksgiving, Spring Break), not before. That way I get a break, too. Or at least I can use the time to read and write, rather than grade.

The grading we have always with us, and it can get done while we're teaching. At the end of term, putting off due dates till after Thanksgiving works even better, because then you don't have to put detailed comments on anything.

If you really want to game the system, have the "original" due date before the break and then "change" it to after.

I have to grade all afternoon, but after I get this batch done, I'm good for a week. So I'll be able to write a book review.

18 November 2011

More heresy (plus nostalgia)

It seems that for quite a long time (that is, a decade or more) there has been more and more pressure on professors to plan the whole course, day by day, before the semester begins (and put the schedule on Blackboard or similar), so that everybody knows in August that on November 15th we'll discuss Fitt 3 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and on November 17th a paper is due. Students expect to be able to look up their reading and paper assignments weeks or months in advance; a few super-conscientious and organized people (usually the returning students who are planning their coursework around their kids' school and sports events) even start work on the papers well in advance.

Such planning can also be useful for professors, who get notably more harried as the semester wears on (Thanksgiving? you mean it's the end of November already? it was Labor Day about an hour ago). October, we all know, is Exploding Head Month; I don't know if there's a name for November (except NaNoWriMo), but you have to figure that the month post-head-explosion can only be messy.

But in Olden Times, whatever long-term advance-planning professors might have done, I sure didn't know about it. When I was an undergrad, a syllabus listed contact information, required texts, number (and sometimes due dates) of papers and/or exams, and maybe some general goals for the course or a note that it was a pre-requisite for something else. Schedules and assignments might be given as separate hand-outs, later, or maybe just announced in class.

And so, not knowing any better, I wrote syllabi like that when I started teaching, as a grad student. I taught in a writing-across-the-curriculum program that gave grad T.A.'s a great deal of autonomy (excellent training for being a professor). I made up more detailed schedules and assignments that covered 3-5 weeks at a time, and as we got to the end of one such segment, I'd make up a new one. Of course I had a general sense that students would write so many pages during the term and that we'd spend weeks 7-10 (or whatever) on Sir Gawain. But if in the event it turned out that three pages turned into a revision instead of a new paper, and if SGGK got weeks 8-11 so we'd have to read less Malory at the end, well, fine. Who (but me) would know how my plans had changed?

The great thing about that way of teaching, which I continued into my early years on the tenure track, was the ability it gave me to be flexible and responsive. If I found that a large chunk of the class needed work on thesis statements, then we'd work on thesis statements; if they were great with thesis statements but had no idea how to argue against possible objections to their ideas without feeling they were undermining their position, then we'd work on that kind of argumentation. And so on. I liked that. I wasn't forced by the syllabus into spending time on topics that were unnecessary and boring for most of the class, and if interesting ideas came up in discussion, I could alter our trajectory so that we focused on, say, medieval castle construction instead of clothing, and create paper assignments accordingly.

Many things are much easier with fewer students, of course. Even though classes were bigger at LRU than they were at my graduate institution, I benefited from a reduced load in my first three years, 2-2 instead of 3-2, and so I had fewer students overall than I do now, and could manage this model effectively. Once I added the third course (and there were some years when I taught 3-3, to make the release available to hires who came after me), it got much harder to take stock of where each individual class or section was, three or four times a semester, and change course accordingly. It actually came as something of a revelation to me that I could plan the whole semester in advance and just stick to the plan. If this is Tuesday, it must be Madrid Marie de France.

Students like knowing what will be due when, of course, and I think it makes them feel secure (or something) to know that the professor is organized, has a plan, and will stick to it. But I think better teaching may happen when the plan gets thrown out, or is vague to start with, and the professor can respond to what interests the students and get the whole class to hare off in some unforeseen direction.

This doesn't seem to fit with my other heretical ideas about more lecturing. But I think what both posts have in common is wanting to be truly student-centered: if what the class wants and needs is more lecture (that is, a stronger framework), then I'm willing to provide that; and if what they need is more short papers with outlining and revision stages, then I'd like to be able to do that; and if I find that they can manage the five-paragraph essay handily but have no idea how to construct a more complex, somewhat longer paper, I'd like to be able to teach that, without feeling locked into a particular structure.

As I write, I notice that I'm emphasizing teaching writing, which was not at all the idea I thought I was starting with. Perhaps I'm still, really, thinking about content vs. skills. It does seem like what students really want in a detailed syllabus is information about written requirements: how many papers, how long, due when, what the papers should do (the "what do you want?" question). I'm reasonably sure that the students are happy to let me decide most if not all of the content issues. But somehow I need to assess what they're learning, and in an English class I am not willing to give multiple-choice exams to see what facts they can regurgitate about SGGK, and yet if I want papers that don't make me want to cut my own head off I wind up needing to teach writing skills.

So. I was going to say, heretically, that I want to give up on the detailed syllabus and respond to what my classes need and/or find interesting; that I'd like to have an end goal in mind but not plan the route in detail; that the class should, ideally, be a quest. And I was going to lament that having lots of students, and the kinds of students that we have at LRU (complicated lives, can't meet outside of class, need to plan library time and writing time well in advance) makes this quest-model rather difficult to put into practice. But if my real topic is still "what sort of writing assignments should I give" or "how to blend content and skills-based teaching," then I have to start this essay over.

Not right now, though. I shall mull for awhile, and see what further thoughts, orthodox or heretical, occur to me.

16 November 2011

Was it something I said?

I am really disturbed by the number of papers that imply that the Wife of Bath is responsible for Jankyn's violence, that she deserves to be hit, and that she shouldn't "allow" him to treat her this way. I'm now examining my teaching-conscience, wondering if something I said or the way I presented the Wife's Prologue prompted such attitudes, or if the students really believe this.

Students should feel free to disagree with me; I don't want to get pious papers that just parrot my own words or pay lip-service to politically correct notions. The papers I'm complaining about show flaws in logic and insufficient attention to the text. The fact that my skin is crawling over some of the statements (most, though not all, from female students) has nothing to do with the grades they're getting. I just need to vent, before I go into the classroom and calmly, thoughtfully, make students think about the likely effects of a twenty-something man hitting a forty-something woman over the head.

Grading whine

The only thing worse than papers about the Wife of Bath that treat her as a representative medieval woman who, like all medieval women, is sadly oppressed by her husbands, yet somehow comes up with some modern feminist principles in order to redress the balance: papers that suggest that the domestic violence she endures is all her fault and that she has no business complaining about husband #5 hitting her on the head so hard "that in the floor I lay as I were deed."

11 November 2011

Teaching, heresy, and logic

I'm sure you've read, somewhere, a rant against Boring Old University Farts Lecturing In A Monotone and thus Preventing Active Learning.

I must say, even though I took six years to collect an undergraduate degree, and heard a number of lectures while I was doing it (as well as experiencing various other types of classroom activities), I never heard anyone lecture in a monotone. In fact, my only experience with this was very recent. At a conference this fall, I heard someone read from a paper held close to the face, in a monotone, and I thought, "Wow, maybe this is the source of all those rants." The speaker was quite animated in private conversation; I think the problem was poor eyesight and a laser focus on just getting the paper delivered, without any frills like eye contact or performative speech.

But I digress, as is my wont.

Anyway, according to this pedagogical theory, we university teachers are not supposed to lecture. We must engage our students in active learning, discussion, projects, teaching one another, all learning together. According to this model, the students learn more this way than they could from lecture. Also according to this model, students are independent thinkers, responsible for their own education, able to adjust their approach to their projects in accordance with their own learning styles.

It is not, at the moment, my purpose to critique this theory, though if you want to do so in the comments, or give links to people who have already done so, please do. I just want to note that the theory gives considerable agency to students.

OK. Now you have probably also seen the reports on how professional actors lecturing from a script get better teaching evaluations than the professor with the real expertise in the subject area. Well, of course we all like to be entertained; but doesn't that experiment show that lectures can be both entertaining and informative? And further: students also report that they prefer lectures from professors—people whose expertise they recognize—rather than working with their peers, who don't know as much as their professors. Students feel they are paying to learn from experts, not to try to teach each other.

Now, if we grant students agency, if we say that we trust them to know how they learn best and what they need, should we not then take their desire for lively, informative lectures seriously? A good lecture provides a framework for reading and writing (or projects and homework) done outside of class; it's a starting point, raising questions for students to consider and try to find answers to, or a finishing point, rounding up answers and synthesizing the work that has (one hopes) happened outside of the classroom. Oh, but students don't really know what's good for them; we should force them to do the active learning projects etc. because that's how they'll learn more . . . . But if they don't know what's good for them, why must we then treat them as if they did?

Actually, I have spent my career thus far teaching almost entirely via discussion, with relatively little lecture, or at least, little that's formally planned. My students have discovered that what they think is a simple question can easily wind me up for a 10-20 minute lecture. I can often predict at what point in the semester someone will ask the question that triggers the lecture on the Black Death, or on medieval demography, or various other topics that I can cover apparently extemporaneously. That is, I want to get those lectures into the class somewhere, but the particular day doesn't matter; the questions are going to come up, and then I will let my tape unspool.

Such teacher-training as I had emphasized discussion, in part because we were dealing with small (17 or fewer students) classes, where it was easy to make sure everyone was participating, and in a student population where it was easy to devise good discussion questions and ways to get students to prep so that really informative, significant discussion would happen. And there's nothing so much fun as going in and having a really good talk with smart, interested people about topics that interest all of us. That model worked quite well for me for a long time, even at my current job, where the classes are twice the size and the students are a very different population.

Times change, though, and people change, and students change. I've alluded here and in comments on other people's posts to some of the changes I've been noticing this fall. In short: my students are smart, and certainly engaged in their own education (most of them), but definitely lacking in the kind of preparation, and the kind of doing-college skills, that I could expect nearer the beginning of my career. They seem to profit enormously, disproportionately, from lectures that give them a framework for their readings, and they are (many, not all) nearly helpless to even begin constructing such a framework for themselves, as I was expected to do in much of my undergraduate work.

And I remember (digressing again) wishing someone would provide such a framework: even though I was able to build one up for myself, I did, at that stage of my life, feel it might be a waste of my time to do so when I could have got one from a professor and used it as a springboard to get me further into the material. Am I glad I did the frame-building myself, was it useful after all? I don't know. It's what happened. It was my formation. I am the thinker, the scholar, the professor I am because of it; but I don't think it was the best or only way that my education could have proceeded. It's useful to build your own frames, but it can also be useful to start with a nice sturdy frame someone else has constructed and focus on adding the wallboard and the wiring. I guess it depends on what you think you're teaching: how to frame a house, or how to finish it?

At any rate, while I think there are places for discussion, and for the kinds of projects that require students to frame and solve problems on their own, I also think that (a) there is a place for lecture, (b) lectures are not in and of themselves boring, (c) if we're considering students as independent adult thinkers then we should pay attention to what they say they want and value, (d) they say they want and value lecture from their professors, and so (e) I should lecture more.

Besides, I seem to be good at lecturing.


05 November 2011


Yesterday I had a conversation with a distinguished senior scholar. When I mentioned one of the projects I'm working on, he said about the area of study it falls into, "It's hard." He said this a couple more times about this field, once explaining why there are few people currently working in it, and once more along the lines of lamenting that more people aren't being trained to go into it.

Every time, I thought, "No, it's not. It's easy."

Finally, when he began to explain what it takes to do this well, the "hard" comments began to make sense to me. As graduate education is normally comprised, this area is interdisciplinary, and so people trained in one department don't usually have any significant acquaintance with the other one necessary to do this work; and furthermore, the general attitude of scholars in at least one of the disciplines is dismissive about this area.

But I had a checkered undergradate past, and an interdisciplinary graduate education, and so I am in fact very well trained to do this work, besides having a native talent for the underlying skills. So it is easy for me. So easy that it doesn't really occur to me that not everyone finds it easy and fun, and that really I ought to be focusing my energies here and making a name for myself in this area.

I'm putting it on the list. Once I work through all the various current and sidelined projects, I will turn to this thing that is easy for me.

And because Profacero has sensitized me to the question of whom it serves to say that writing (or anything else) is hard, I am going to try to use this experience to adjust my own way of speaking. Rather than saying "X is hard," I will prefer "If you have good basic skills in Y and Z, and a talent for Q, then X is easy. And if you haven't got those basic skills in Y and Z, then you must work at acquiring them."

Some people will still find this discouraging, but the statement specifies what you need, and so even for those who lack the prerequisites, it may lead to the question "How do I get those skills?" rather than to the thought "oh, it's hard, I won't be able to."

04 November 2011

Chaucer syllabus review

Every fall, I have 70 students in Chaucer, and no help with grading. Teaching Chaucer, for me, is not an occasional treat with a small group of enthusiasts, but a constant hard slog of Middle English boot camp with a bunch of draftees, who every year appear to be in worse shape when they start out than the last batch of maggots.

So tonight I have about a dozen web pages and three more PDFs open to different undergraduate Chaucer syllabuses. It's interesting to see the range of requirements. At Harvard, for example, no papers are required. The grads are supposed to write a paper, and the undergrads may do so, if they want to make up for a skipped exam. But the planned undergrad assessments are exams.

I suppose at Harvard, you can assume that your students already know how to write papers.

There's a whole group of courses structured around a term paper. For some, it's really the only significant assessment, though there may be some quizzes along the way, an annotated bibliography here, a rough draft there. Some make a concerted effort to break down the parts of the research paper and teach students how to do it. Others may do this in class, but it doesn't show up on the syllabus.

A significant minority seem to rely heavily on team/group work, often involving creating webpages or some other sort of visual presentation, alongside more traditional papers and exams.

Another chunk of courses do the little-bit-of-everything approach: some translations, some quizzes, one or two or three shortish papers, or maybe collections of discussion questions, a short annotated bibliography, a longer paper, maybe a final exam. This is what my syllabus used to look like, but it's a model I want to move away from. It's confusing. My aim is to simplify.

I'm never really happy with my Chaucer course. There are too many things I want to do, or feel I must do, and it's hard to set priorities and work out how to teach all the necessary skills alongside teaching the real essential skill, how to read Middle English. Unlike Harvard students, many of mine still have to be taught how to write essays for literature classes. Possibly they knew before they were confronted with Middle English, and what I'm seeing is a reversion of one skillset while they're in the process of acquiring a new one. But whatever: I'm not so much interested in why I have to be very clear about instructions, model processes in class, give sample papers, and so on, as I am in the fact of having to do it, and how that changes what I can do in class.

A lot of my students also face significant time pressures, because they work (often full-time), have children, or both. I know I'm looking at a school very different from mine when a syllabus says that if a class is cancelled due to weather, they'll find a time to make it up. That, to me, says "traditional-age undergraduates living on-campus in residence halls." Chez moi, if we lose a day, it stays lost. Similarly, trying to get people to work in groups outside of class is much, much worse than herding cats. I could herd a troupe of Basement Cat's demonic little friends more easily than get my students together outside of regularly scheduled class time. Anyway, that's another thing to take into account when I'm thinking about what I'm going to require, and how much scaffolding it will take.

My students really seem to want, and do better at, lots of short, low-stakes assignments: translations, worksheets, short papers. I've seen this in the past (right after sabbatical, when I was feeling fired with idealism, I had my classes do some sort of short paper every week: it was great for them, but nearly killed me), and I'm seeing it now, when I've made some mid-course alterations to grant student desires for this sort of thing. After two weeks of students handing in a translation at every course meeting (we go over them in class; I just check them off later), I'm seeing significant improvement in reading comprehension.

Maybe it's a matter of my own bottom-up way of building research topics, but I don't think I can teach how to do the research paper on Chaucer. I'd have to break the process down into teensy steps and collect work every week or two, grade it, and then re-grade the whole thing when it came back as a paper at the end of the course. And I believe in "reading around" for awhile before coming up with a topic; I don't want to assign topics at the beginning of the semester ("bird imagery in tales told by women" or whatever). So I'm not going the research paper route, though I worry a bit about that art dying out: I now have to teach the grad students how to write a term paper, so clearly not everyone is learning that in undergrad any longer.

My primary goal is to get students reading Middle English comfortably. I'd be thrilled if they get through this class and then go read some Chaucer on their own. Not necessarily for fun, but say they take Shakespeare and want to look into Troilus and Criseyde as a source for Troilus and Cressida, and feel okay about reading TC on their own: that would be grand. On top of that, if I can teach (or reinforce) some basic literary analysis skills, that's good, too.

Thus I'm thinking, in future, lots of translation, some worksheets, and some short papers that focus on the skill of close reading. Oh, and I think I want to go back to memorizing some lines, which I let drop awhile back due to popular demand. But I think it's important and should come back. Part of my justification for the type of written work is that learning Middle English now seems to be much harder than it was 15 years ago (I blame poor vocabulary, whatever is causing that); part is that close (nay, myopic, the way I work) reading is a useful skill not only for literary scholars but for readers in general, and yet students rarely seem to get much of this in their other classes. There are other things I consider desirable, and I'd like to work out a way to let my top students stretch more than this model would allow, without killing myself grading. But these are the essentials.

30 October 2011

Reading Comprehension

A couple of books recently entered this house (actually, books enter this house on a regular basis, and few of them ever leave), and I was struck by the contrast in their style. I have mentioned my reading tastes before: Pamela Dean, Lois McMaster Bujold, Amanda Cross, Angela Thirkell, C. J. Cherryh, and so on. But when I'm not reading mindless fluff, I'm usually deep into something peer-reviewed. I have little patience with jargon-filled obfuscation, but on the other hand, I do expect serious reading to have serious vocabulary.

So when Sir John brought home Willpower (Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney), which has been well-reviewed in such august places as the New York Times, I was surprised by its chatty tone and pop-culture references. Here's the first paragraph of chapter one, in its entirety: "If you have a casual acquaintance with Amanda Palmer's music, if you know about her banned-in-Britain abortion song or the 'Backstabber' video of her running down a hall naked holding an upraised knife while chasing the equally naked guy in lipstick who was just in bed with her, you probably don't think of her as a paragon of self-control."

I have no idea who Amanda Palmer is, nor does this (what I take to be an appeal to popular taste) want to make me read on. I was hoping for a serious treatment of willpower, which is what the reviews led me to expect.

Now, for contrast, here's the first paragraph of A New Stoicism (Lawrence C. Becker) acquired at the same bookstore, same shopping trip: "After five hundred years of prominence in Greek and Roman antiquity, stoic ethics was pillaged by theology and effaced by evangelical and imperial Christianity. A few stoic philosophers survived, most of them by providing analgesics for use in pastoral counseling, the military, and what then passed for medicine and psychotherapy. Only those shards of our doctrines were widely seen during the Middle Ages, and the term stoic came to be applied merely to people who used remedies. This confusion persists."

I would have expected serious non-fiction to sound more like example two than like example one. In fact, I am amazed that Willpower has had such good reviews, when it seems to be written for people with a sixth-grade reading ability. But if that's what we're reduced to, then no wonder my students don't know the words "bough," "clad," and "boisterous."

28 October 2011

The Existentialists and happiness

One day Camus had said: "Happiness exists, and it's important; why refuse it? You don't make other people's unhappiness any worse by accepting it; it even helps you to fight for them. Yes," he had concluded, "I find it sad the way everyone seems to be ashamed of feeling happy nowadays." I agreed with him completely.

Simone de Beauvoir. Force of Circumstance. Vol. 1: After the War. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Originally published as La Force des choses, Paris: Gallimard, 1963. 162.

I apologize for the translation: I acquired my copies of Beauvoir's biographies in my middle teens, before I learned French.

At any rate: if even the existentialists believe in being happy, why in the world should the rest of us suffer? It is the weekend, so we will sing.

26 October 2011

Reflections on fantasy and real life

Awhile ago there was a blogger who wrote as Professor Me (IIRC); some of you no doubt remember her, or even have the password to her blog. As I recall her blog, it was very appealing, and I read it with the sort of attention and wilfully suspended disbelief that I usually reserve for space opera. She couldn't get down to academic work until the kitchen was clean, so every night after cooking dinner for her husband and adorable child, she cleaned up and scrubbed the sink, then settled down to writing or class prep.

I loved that image of the clean, tidy, orderly setting for the life of the orderly and productive mind.

At the same time, I noticed that it was achieved at the cost of a fairly traditional division of household labor. The husband was handy at doing household repairs and remodeling, but only the wife cleaned the kitchen.

Now, if it were possible to leave dishes of milk out and attract a brownie who would clean the kitchen every night, I'd go for it, and risk the cats getting diarrhea if they got to the milk first. I guess it would fall to the brownie to clean up, anyway: dude, them's the breaks if you're late to work.

But in the absence of brownies, my life is much messier, in all respects, as well as more egalitarian. No one around here is at all handy (except maybe Basement Cat, and we are lucky that he still finds the lack of opposable thumbs a considerable handicap), so if the house needs fixing up, we hire someone else to do it. We share laundry. Sir John shops for groceries, because I hate shopping in all its forms (no, I have no idea where all the shoes came from; maybe some brownie dropped them off). I pay the bills. I cook. Sir John handles the dishes.

Some readers might justly recall David Lodge's novel Nice Work, in which Robyn Penrose says, "I quite like washing up, it's therapeutic," and Vic Wilcox replies, "You don't seem to need therapy very often."

The thing is, however you divide the work, you can't micromanage each other. So tonight I moved some dirty dishes aside to wash vegetables, put a cutting board down over this morning's newspaper so I could chop them, and got on with the cooking. And then I left the dishes and prepared the guest lecture I have to give tomorrow morning.

This was all clearer in my head when I wrote it as I was cooking dinner. Post-lecture prep, it's gone fuzzy and the logic is lousy or missing entirely. But it's supposed to be a sort of meditation on the differences between what we expect or think we want and what our actions show that we really value, and about letting go of expectations. I want to make it clear that I'm not complaining. I sometimes fantasize about a self-cleaning kitchen, but I don't want it enough to do it myself, or even enough to hire our cleaner for some extra hours. The dishes get done sooner or later, the cleaner scrubs the sink once a week, and that's good enough. What I do want is home-cooked food (because I am greedy and like my own cooking), and time to do my work, and the ability to think of household work as shared responsibility, not just mine.

Also, I guess, I liked the chance to live vicariously a little, to imagine that someone has time and energy to both clean the kitchen and get the real work done.

22 October 2011

Re-booting the semester

Even before Notorious Ph.D. suggested the theme of the re-set button, I had been thinking that I need to re-boot my semester. While I have achieved a couple of significant goals (submitting the fellowship application; adding some polish to a drafted chapter), other areas of my life have suffered: I'm slower than usual to return papers, am not exercising enough, and often don't get enough sleep. I'd like to start over and aim at a better balance for the remaining weeks of term.

Fortunately, I don't have any more conferences to go to (I think in general it is a mistake to go to conferences during term-time, at least in three-course semesters). And I have no more hugely significant deadlines, either. There are six more weeks, I guess, for the current ADNWG term, and about the same before I have to turn in a book review (IIRC; maybe I should check that e-mail).

Last week I was suffering a bit of let-down after getting the application done, and also from withdrawal symptoms (oh, am I not supposed to admit being a research addict?). I enjoyed the focus I needed to exert on the application and sample chapter, the feeling that this was the most important thing I had to do and that I could justify dropping everything else lower on the priority list. I also enjoyed having an external deadline, which forced me to put aside some of my perfectionist tendencies. Put those things together with a resolution made earlier this year to submit something, somewhere, in 2011, and I had to look over my various projects to see what I might be able to finish in the next couple of months.

(I know it's a good thing to have a book that really wants to be written, and I love the conference-paper-turned-book project. But I was so set on sending it out as an article this year. I want more publications!)

So there's the Macedonian Marginalia Project, which could probably be done in a couple of months; but not these months, when I need to catch up on grading and then prep and grade final exams and projects. I planned to work on the MMP in January-March 2012, and that still seems like a good idea. I will have two courses with the same prep in the spring, and (most likely) a lighter workload on my major committee; that will give me more head-space to think about a fairly complex project in which the argument stands or falls on tiny details. I'd like to wrap it up by spring break, on the theory that the second part of the semester tends to have more grading in it, and also that I will have at least one conference paper to prepare in the later spring.

Then there's the Unexpected Project that was a conference paper in the summer. When I got that digitized scan that proved I had a third manuscript to deal with, I got all excited and thought maybe that was the piece that I would push out the door by the end of December. And then I checked on what the manuscript actually is and realized that I have a huge problem with the dates, and because of that, I have far less of a viable draft than I had thought. I have to start all over on part of the research for that essay, which is rather discouraging. I wish I'd thought more about this third manuscript at some earlier stage. I knew it was a possibility, but no scholarly source I found said for certain it was the same hand, and I hadn't seen it myself, and so I just pushed the possibility aside and tracked something that seemed plausible. But "plausible" is now "provably wrong."

Another possibility for a submission this year was a note related to the Big Volume of Manuscript. But the issues involved are similar to those in the Unexpected Project, and so now I'm spooked about that kind of research and want to be very sure that I'm right before trying to publish anything along those lines. It's bad enough feeling that I've given conference papers that are so wrong; at least I didn't publish the incorrect Unexpected details.

Anyway, those were the options for alternate goals for this fall. And none is viable, so I'm back to Plan A: finish a decent draft of another chapter of the book, and work steadily if slowly on the Big Translation. It's a relief, really; my motto for the past few years has been "stick to Plan A," which works for both small and large plans. I can drive myself crazy thinking up alternate plans and wondering which would be best, for everything from "what to wear tomorrow" to much more significant decisions. I am so much happier when I make a plan and stick to it, with only minor modifications (if it's colder, wear a wool blazer instead of a linen one; if it rains, wear the rain boots; if short on sleep, stare at a draft of the writing project and tinker with sentences instead of trying to work on the organization).

As an aside, I think a lot of my difficulties with planning and organization are not native, but learned. For me, the Myers-Briggs categories explain a lot. By temperament, I'm fairly strongly J (in the sense of wanting plans and to stick to them; there are other elements to J-ness, and I think finer granularity in the sub-elements makes the MB types work better: when I took the test, each of the four axes had ten sub-elements), but I grew up with parents who must have been super-P. Thus I both had to learn to tolerate the chaos of our household and did not get any decent modeling of how to plan and stay organized. It's only relatively late in life that I've realized how stressful and irritating I find P-ness, in most areas. Sometimes I want to put off a decision while I collect information, but that is something I plan for, and once I make up my mind I don't want to revisit the decision.

Then wouldn't I just have stuck to the plan about the chapter all along? No, see, the original Plan A was to write an article, not a book. That's where the recent thrashing came from. Must. Have. Article. But no. The better part of valor, considering long-term goals, is to accept the change from article to book, and get a chapter finished this fall, so that I can cannibalize it for a conference paper in the spring (if that abstract is accepted) and have two reasonably complete chapters when I start (oh please oh please) a fellowship year of writing.

So the plan for the weekend was to get all caught up on stuff, get enough sleep, get enough exercise, and re-boot the semester this coming week. Goals: continue to write every day, but stop after half an hour or so (unless I really am caught up on everything else). Turn back papers promptly. Prep more thoroughly for the grad class. Exercise an optimal amount on non-teaching days, and a sub-optimal but acceptable amount on campus days. Set a manageable sleep schedule, and stick to it.

It's a great plan. Sadly, I think Sir John and I both accidentally got caffeinated coffee earlier today. So I'm still wide awake, and expect to be up for awhile yet. I have things to do, of course: grading, notes on books I want to get off my desk, planning. I may not get the sleep schedule sorted out this weekend, but I can at least get caught up (if I don't start remembering more things I have dropped the ball on!), and I'll keep working on the sleep thing.

19 October 2011

Dating is hell

The new MS is all kinds of interesting, but there is a problem: since the hand is the same, and the MS is securely dated, my identification of last summer is wrong.

Just plain wrong. Impossible. Factually incorrect. As I said then, there's no way to hand-wave my way out of this.

At least I haven't made the claim in print. But still: a lot of research and clever connections that I thought had me well on the way to a cool publication, all that is right down the drain.

Calvinball. Humph. I think I just scored against my own side.

18 October 2011

OMG ponies!!! Elebenty!!11!

A manuscript scan popped into my inbox this morning.

It's the same hand

This is very exciting.

I know you have no idea what I'm talking about. But it's good news.

So I have to think about whether I'm sticking with my goal of finishing a book chapter this fall, or whether I want to get on with this other project while it's relatively fresh in my mind. There is a bit of a problem about visiting this other manuscript, given my teaching schedule. But that's a mere detail.

16 October 2011

The advantages of a long commute

Lately, it seems like I keep seeing comments, blog posts, and Chronicle fora posts about the joys of living close to campus, and how much people's quality of life improves when they move a five-minute walk away from work. Undoubtedly I am sensitive to such comments, so they may be less prevalent than I have suggested.

For over fifteen (15) years, I have commuted to a job about 60 (sixty) miles from where I live. It takes about an hour in the car, sometimes a bit more depending on traffic. I don't exactly like the commute. Frequently I add up the number of hours per week I spend in the car, realize that they are equivalent to a day of work, and remind myself that this is why I don't really have hobbies. On the other hand, I do see certain advantages, if not to the commute, then to living where I do.

1. Perspective. I don't leave work at work; I normally work a great deal at home. When I'm on campus, I'm usually in class or in a meeting, or having office hours. I have to schedule library time when I need it. But though work comes home with me, the institution recedes into the distance. I can work in my study without having anyone pop in for just a minute; I can work in a coffee shop without seeing anyone I know who wants a quick word about a paper or a committee. It's clearer to me, from a distance, which tasks really matter to me as opposed to those that someone else wants me to do. The job is a job; it's not my life. Yes, less time in the car might mean more time for "a life" as most people mean it, but I don't really want "a life" in the town I work in.

2. The kind of life I want. I like cities. My job is not in a city, but my home is. On days I don't go to campus, I can enjoy the advantages of city life, including items 3-10:

3. Quicker, easier access to cultural events. Obviously it would be possible to drive in for these from the place where I work, and when I lived there, I did. But it's nice to get home faster at night, when the show's over.

4. Good public transportation to libraries and places of cultural significance.

5. Excellent restaurants.

6. A posh gym that I truly enjoy using (and I never see my students in the locker room).

7. Better medical care than is available where I work, and a wider range of insurance options.

8. More sophisticated veterinary care for my spoiled and sickly darlings.

9. Anonymity. Obviously this does not appeal to everyone. Lots of people like being thoroughly woven into their communities, and I know that studies show this is important to happiness and well-being. Sure, if you're an extrovert. Extreme introverts like me love cities because no one is paying attention to us, no one knows us, no one expects a lot of interaction.

10. More interesting, better-stocked grocery stores. And bookstores. And other shopping. Sure, now we have the Internet, but sometimes it's fun to browse in person.

11. Decompression time. Intense interaction with people, as in teaching, somehow both exhausts me and gets me all wound up. It's like being an over-excited little kid at a party, who's really in need of a glass of milk and a nap instead of cola and cake and more games. The hour in the car alone is a good opportunity to start winding down, to debrief myself about how things went and what I might do next time, to sort out what I really need to tell Sir John and what is just stuff I need to think through on my own.

12. Warm-up time. Similarly, the drive to school helps me get my head around what I'm going to be doing for the day. I don't plunge from my house into the classroom. Now that I have usually already read (several dozen times) what I'll be teaching, I can do a lot of class prep in my head, in the car.

13. And, to make it a baker's dozen, better access to more interesting walking trails and outdoorsy stuff like that. It sounds counter-intuitive, but in an area known for farming, living in a small town does not necessarily put you in a good spot for a nature walk or bike ride, unless you want to check out the amber waves of grain while cars zip past and their occupants yell rudely.

I have many friends and colleagues who love living where they work. As the Grumpy Pair keep saying, my choices aren't judging yours. I'm weird. That's not news. But this here's my answer to the question (usually asked with obivous horror) of why I would undertake this long commute; and notice that this answer doesn't even open up the two-body issue.

12 October 2011

Update; lists

I think the fellowship application is done. Tomorrow I print the final copy (I expect a bit of futzing around with fonts and margins, once I'm on a computer hooked up to a printer). Friday it gets postmarked.

Papers are commented and handed back: without grades, though. We're going to do some revision exercises and stuff with those papers. I'm thinking what to do about actual grades/credit. I still need a revised syllabus for the rest of the semester.

My guest lecturer for tomorrow just bailed on me this evening. It's not a situation that can be helped; but that's so much less time to work on the syllabus, because I need to cover what the guest would have covered.

So, I have ideas for substantive posts (commuting; changes in/because of/after grad program; titles), but they're not going to get written tonight or tomorrow. We'll see after that.

09 October 2011

Oh, noooes

If I didn't have to spend most of tomorrow in a series of meetings topped off with a night class, I'd be in great shape with the grading.

Or if my out-of-town friend had visited some other weekend.

Or if I hadn't stayed up much too late on Friday reading a new book that Sir John got me (really, shouldn't one show appreciation for presents?).

Unfortunately, I have done those things I ought not to have done and will do other things that I wish I need not do, and at the moment I feel I should go to bed very soon or there will indeed be no health in me. And since this term I am grading hard-copy papers, I will not be able to grade discreetly during tomorrow's meetings, blast it. Chalk up another point in favor of all-electronic grading, though I still feel that over all, I'm happier marking up paper papers.

07 October 2011

A simple tweak

Grading is boring. Mostly. It's not so much painful as just boring. I'm not frustrated or angry at writing the same comments over and over, and seeing the same mistakes. I expect that. It's okay. I'm asking my students both to cope with Middle English and to do a kind of detailed literary analysis that most of them aren't used to. I can teach that, and I do, and by the end of the term most of them will get it, but the first paper shows that they can't really believe I want what I say I want, and that they feel safer falling back on the kind of thing that has served them in the past. I get that. We can work on all this.

But I get so bored that it's hard to stick with the task.

And then, finally, I remembered the solution: music! I can't believe I forgot that. The problem is that I cannot work on writing or other "serious" work with music playing (except in coffee shops, where somehow I concentrate to block it out and that concentration is actually part of the way work in coffee shops happens). So after a summer of quiet work alone in my study, I really do forget that for some kinds of tedious work, music is the answer. It gives my fretful monkey mind something to think about while the teaching brain comments away and plots how to present these lessons the next time we talk about doing this kind of criticism.

So never mind the four papers and a break. Once I got a soundtrack, I sat in front of an open window and worked steadily for a couple of hours, getting through 9 or 10 papers in that time. That's a respectable rate. I'll still be grading all weekend, but it's looking like a less horrid prospect now.

As Z would say, it is the weekend so we will sing.

Grading day

I have re-written the opening salvo of my fellowship application, and now I have to go feed the fluffy horde. I declare the rest of today a Grading Day. I intend to do four-paper batches, since that seems to be the number I can do comfortably, with breaks in between: no reading, no computer work, but stretching, walking, maybe weeding or housework, something physical anyway, for about ten minutes, so that I will be truly refreshed when I go back to reading papers.

This is the Plan! I shall conquer the mountain of papers!

And tonight or tomorrow I'll let you know how it goes. The Plan pretty much has to stay in effect the whole weekend, which could get a little problematic since I have a friend visiting from Far Away whom I want to see. Ten-minute breaks don't suffice for social life.

Conquer. Conquer! Excelsior!

05 October 2011

Writing etc. report

Sample chapter: done. Done enough, that is, to send to recommenders. It still needs work before it's publication-ready: more conversation with critics, more historical support, more direct discussion of a textual problem. But the argument is clear and well-developed.

Grading: oh, so not done. So just barely started.

Syllabus in need of revision, too.

I need to devote myself to teaching for a bit once I get this application finished and sent.

It's very clear that when I have a single writing goal for the week, I do quite well at it, and when I have more than one thing needing attention, I get anxious and scattered and don't do very well at any of my goals.

In fact, I think this may apply more generally: on writing-intensive days, it is very hard to switch gears and think about teaching. One of the reasons writing first thing in the morning is good for me is that that time-slot compartmentalizes the writing.

Female Science Professor had an interesting post about types of worker. I think I am an X1 who has managed to learn to juggle a few things. In grad school I thought I was an X2 but actually I am good at organizing my own structure: I wrote most of my dissertation in a single year on fellowship while also on the job market. It was a stressful time (more because of the job market and personal life than because of the dissertation) but I got a lot done. But I have never been a W. I wish I were, but I'm not.

So today I meant to finish fixing up the chapter, grade some papers, and pay bills. I finished the chapter, graded about half the papers I wanted to, and went to the bank, which was a precondition of the bill-paying. I went to the gym and took the boys to the vet.* Not a bad day. But all the gear-switching was hard.

I still believe in writing first thing. I'm not changing that. But I think I need to consider ways to "do less" but get more done: maybe that "three things" way of listing tasks, or have days that are supposed to be primarily for grading or for Life Stuff after the writing gets done in its little compartment.

*Basement Cat was so good. The Grammarian fought vigorously against going in the carrier, shouted for help to the whole neighborhood, and then gave up and sulked at the back of his carrier once he was loaded into the car. But Basement Cat was a dream. He ignored the Grammarian's pleas for aid and jumped in the carrier when I tossed in some kibble bits. BC is totally venal: anything involving kibble is fine with him. Since I have no head for philosophy or theology, I hesitate to draw eschatalogical conclusions from this. But I assure you that he thinks it is better to reign with kibble than to serve without kibble.

27 September 2011

Book meme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 September 2011

On working when you can't

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

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

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

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

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

What problem?

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

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

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

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

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