regrouping day

Why I needed that nap yesterday (which I got for maybe 20 minutes)
During the semester, I try to take Friday as my day off/regrouping time. I don't teach on Fridays, and I usually don't have any meetings then either. But yesterday was different -- I had a 10 am meeting (for which I'd stayed up til 1:30 the night before reading post-doc candidate files). Which on its own wouldn't be so bad -- my plan was to go to the meeting, be done in time to get lunch with my gf, play around with the dogs, go to yoga, and then meet some friends for dinner.

But our oldest dog kept me up nearly all night Thursday with what was pretty obviously a UTI (something she's been prone to in recent years) -- she was uncomfortable and restless, kept asking to go outside but then couldn't or wouldn't pee, etc. I think I slept approximately 3 hours total. So then, tired and worried about her, I went to my meeting Friday morning, and to the vet in the afternoon. She got antibiotics and now, only a couple of doses later, she's definitely feeling a lot better. So that's a big relief.

But most of Friday was really a blurry haze -- I'd been on limited sleep already for most of the week, so Thursday night hit me hard.

Saturday = regrouping day
Last week was crazy busy, and next week will be too. So today is my little fenced-off space for doing whatever I want. I can review scholarship applications and grade papers tomorrow. So far today, I slept late (!! yay for sleep!), read the Chronicle and part of a novel, hung out with my gf, played with the dogs, called a friend for her birthday. Later we'll go to the park and maybe to a movie. Aaaahhh. I can almost feel my shoulders relaxing.


some good things

#1: Finally, someone I used to know googled me and got in touch! (Back in December I mentioned my habit of looking up former friends & acquaintances on google and my shyness about actually emailing anyone. So of course I had discovered what this friend is doing now, and had read his website, but hadn't yet gotten around to emailing him. So I'm very happy to hear from him, especially since I'm going to be going to a conference near to where he lives, so we might even be able to hang out.

#2: I'm done with teaching for the semester!!! Still tons of grading, and job files to read, and meetings to attend, but my weekly schedule just got freed up for a couple of weeks. I'm actually always a bit blue after saying goodbye to all my students (even though I will see them in 10 days for the final) even though I'm equally happy to be done. Mixed feelings.

#3: maybe I can take a nap this afternoon?


procrastination as addiction

One of the points that really stuck with me from Cheryl Robinson's Take Time for Your Life was that excessively checking email (and voicemail, IM, any other communication device) can serve as a source of adrenaline. You come to rely on it to jolt you out of your boredom or procrastination -- a kind of self-medicating, which when overused, can cause distraction. So, a little email break here and there is OK, but if you're checking it every 10 minutes, you probably have a problem. The solution isn't just to shut down your email reader (though that might help) but to figure out why you're reaching for that little digital buzz.

So I was interested to come across this entry in Dave Pollard's blog in Salon, in which he discusses procrastination as itself a form of addiction. Not just as the thing we do to prevent us from completing the tasks that need to be done, but as a cycle with its own built-in little jolts that keep us doing it. (How many times have I said I won't procrastinate about grading papers? and how many times do I wind up staying up late doing them all in a bunch?)

He discusses Steven Pressfield's The War of Art, a little book about finding your creative path that's been making the self-help rounds. I looked at it in the bookstore a couple months ago after David Allen mentioned it in his blog, and didn't find it to my liking, but clearly it inspires interesting responses. Anyway, Pollard explains that Pressfield talks about resistance as a kind of addiction:

And like breaking a deadly and life-sapping addiction, procrastination/ resistance manifests itself in the clever excuses we make for ourselves, and in our craving for more, for the 'high' we get from doing things just when we have to, just in time, and only doing things when we have to. And also like addiction, it takes, he says, enormous inner strength and will to break it. One step at a time, knowing for the rest of your life you will be vulnerable to relapses, and will have to start the agonizing process to kick the habit all over again. No excuses, no sympathy, no yielding to the temptation even once -- the fight of your life, for the rest of your life.

Pollard talks in good painful detail about the pull of the urgent that so often outweighs the important (paper grading vs writing article, for instance). He then winds up with the interesting claim that cognitive, intellect-based strategies (to rationally decide what's important and to do it, rather than just doing the urgent things) might not really work for a lot of us:

A colleague of mine is reading a book that describes how to 'push past' the urgent and make time, and room, for the important. I'm going to read it (and I'll report back here) but somehow I don't think that's the cure. You can't think your way out of an addiction, you have to fight your way out. It's an emotional process, not an intellectual one. The tendency to procrastinate is natural, human nature. Our psychological addiction to it is almost certainly reinforced, as with all addictions, by a physical, chemical addiction, that euphoria we get from crossing urgent things off the "to do" list. We do not yet understand the chemistry behind addiction, but it must be exploiting something that, for millions of years, was a positive reinforcement -- allowed our species to survive and thrive better. It might help if we find out what this chemistry is and how it has been perverted into our modern addictions, including our addiction to procrastination, to the urgent over the important, to Resistance.

Interesting stuff. Of course, for non life-threatening addictions, you can also just embrace them. For instance, I basically know that for certain kinds of tasks I will just wait until the last minute. And maybe I should just accept that, the same way I embrace and even celebrate my caffeine addiction. But I have other less benign forms of resistance, too, which might need to be done away with.


technologies of writing

Over at the Valve, Miriam J/Scribblingwoman asks the members of that group to answer some meme-like questions about writing and reading, each of which would be a good prompt for its own blog post. (Maybe I need to save her list for when I can't think of anything else to write about.) But for today I'm just interested in her first, deceptively simple, question: Do you compose on the computer? Why or why not?

It seems simple, and the easiest way for me to answer would be "yes, because the twin demons of Deadline and Procrastination are right behind me, breathing foul odors and scraping my back with their long talons."

But dig a little deeper and it gets more interesting. What, after all, does "compose" cover? My writing process of the past 14 years looks something like this:
  1. read, write notes longhand
  2. type quotes if I have time; cover books in sticky flags if I don't.
  3. write extensive outline by hand
  4. rewrite outline maybe 3 times to figure out what I'm actually arguing
  5. write pages of crappy first draft on computer
  6. revise by hand on hard copy in several colors of ink: inserting paragraphs, rearranging things, deleting lines, paragraphs, pages of unusable stuff.
  7. transcribe to computer
  8. repeat #6-7 multiple times.
I produce a heck of a lot of text on the computer, but what feels like serious work (or composing) is the outlining and the re/writing that happens after the first draft. I love being at the revision stage of a manuscript, rather than at the blank beginning, because that's where the artistic sense of composing really comes into play. That's where I can see the patterns in my own thoughts revealing themselves, where I can arrange the elements to my liking.

Earlier, more than 14 years ago, I was writing with a very different process, because I didn't yet own a computer. I would take notes, outline, and write the first draft longhand. Do several rounds of edits. Type up a final copy. Be done.

Lots of things are different when you write directly at the computer. The possibility of multiple revisions creates ever more demands for perfection. When I had to type up my papers once, before turning them in, I was limited in how often I could revise. Now the boundaries of my texts are less firm, their lifespan on my desk artifically prolonged. And, as I teach my students, it's easy to be deceived by simply quantity of output: it fills up several pages, it comes out looking nice from the printer, and you might think you have an essay when you don't. For me, if I'm working on something especially challenging, I have to write it out by hand, so I can think more slowly. Scott McLemee's recent article comes close to blaming computer technology for "boring" academic writing, a logical connection I don't agree with. I know plenty of people who write smart, beautiful prose at the keyboard, and plenty of terrible writers attached to their fetish pens and notebooks. The technology you choose inevitably affects your thinking and composing process, your speed of production, your relationship to your final result. But I don't think there's any wholesale answer (Tarzan: pens Good, computer Bad // Jane: computer Good, pens Bad) to be found.

There are plenty of good things about writing on the computer, too. Touch Typing was the best class I ever took in high school -- I'm fast, accurate, and able to get lots done at the keyboard. Writing by hand is slow and kind of painful after 45 minutes. Plus I feel much more comfortable knowing that my previous versions, my deleted sections, my alternative endings, all exist somewhere on my hard drive, neatly organized by file name and date. My computer offers a map of my thought process, which is greatly consoling for someone like me who has a terrible memory. I frequently come across a file of notes about a source that I don't remember reading. Thankfully I personally don't have to keep track of where all those notes are, or I'd really never get anything accomplished.

Lately, post-tenure, I've been trying to reimagine my writing process, to think about what really works for me and what doesn't. I have a sneaking suspicion that I was a more careful writer back in the longhand days -- and I might have been smarter. Yet at the time, I was only writing 20-30 page papers, not 50 pages or 250. It's a lot easier to have well-organized and well-crafted prose when your topic is so limited. But maybe, just maybe, I wonder, I should try going back to doing a first draft longhand. After all, I know people used to write whole books longhand -- I grew up in a house of writers, and one of my fond memories is watching my parents cut-and-paste, old-style. (Scissors, strips of paper on the floor, scotch tape. ) But my desire for efficiency won't let me even think about writing a whole article or chapter longhand, much less a whole book. I live in a world where speed does matter. And an academic world where quantity and speed of output matters. So it's really a question of figuring out where I need the speed and where I can get more value from slowing down, from physically wrestling with my words.

I read lots of writerly blogs and most of us at some point or other talk about these things. Confessing a particular pen, a special writing ritual. McLemee quotes a passage from Walter Benjamin that had a huge impact on me when I was 20ish, basically commanding the serious writer to develop some passions and rituals about the process. I have some of my own (certain pens I use for editing etc) but I'd really be interested in hearing about people's rituals and experiences at the keyboard -- because as long as the longhand folks are the only ones describing their experience as writers, then the writing that so many of us do for many of the day's hours seems not to count.

(I'll write up my own tomorrow, once I've had a chance to think about it some more. I didn't know when I started writing this that I'd wind up giving myself an assignment. Because of course I don't have a stack of other things to do right now...)


taste of things to come

So, next month, my gf and I are making a trip to my hometown to see my mother for her birthday. It'll be our first visit since she moved to her new house (longtime readers will recall I made several trips last spring/summer to help clear out & pack up the 40+ years of stuff in her old house), and she's excited to have us come and see the painting and remodeling she's had done. We, on the other hand, are less excited. She's a difficult person to deal with, and it takes a lot of energy just to be around her. I'm lucky my partner is coming with me, since she will serve as a good buffer for the nitpicking that invariably erupts when I see my mother. Though of course it has already started:

[Setting: on the phone earlier this evening. Background info: small college town where my mother lives is an hour away from the airport, and my mother is old enough that she doesn't really drive except for errands in town.]

Mel: so you got my email with the times of our flights?
Mother: Yes. I suppose you'll be getting a rental car? [said with withering scorn]
Mel: yes, that's the simplest thing.
Mother: but you'll only be here for a couple of days
Mel: well, we want to have the flexibility of having our own car
Mother: but what would you need to do?
Mel: you know, I want to go and see Steve and Mary while we're in town. And maybe we'll want to go out somewhere when you're busy.
Mother: I could arrange a ride for you from the airport with the people coming in for the festival my theatre group is putting on
Mel: no, I think we'll just get a rental car.
Mother: that's ridiculous.
Mel: it's only $40. It's what I've decided to do.
Mother: but you don't need to go anywhere.

Arrgghh. We go through this every single time I go to see her. It's infinitely easier and more efficient for me to get a rental car at the airport -- not to mention it's psychologically less damaging for me to be able to leave her house and go to a coffee shop or just drive around if I need to. Which I think deep down is precisely what bothers her. She'd much rather have us completely under her control, every minute of the day.

This makes the next two weeks of grading etc seem almost pleasant.

my favorite poet of the exclamation mark


Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!
You really are beautiful! Pearls,
harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! All
the stuff they've always talked about

still makes a poem a surprise!
These things are with us every day
even on beachheads and biers. They
do have meaning. They're strong as rocks.

-- The Selected Poems of Frank O'Hara


go forth and be distracted

All Consuming is back! A few weeks ago, I took my feed off my blog because I'd been having problems trying to update it -- and then Erik Benson explained his server had been compromised. So I just sort of forgot about it until this morning, when as I'm skimming around online while the coffee drips, I see a new feed on someone's blog.

Now you can track movies & music as well. And it's now tag-based, so you can create your own categories. Much more flexible.

Now if only the display script was a little bit more adjustable... but I figured out how to split it into two relevant groups using the tags I've put on things. (scroll down past my bloglist)

Because I really needed to futz around with this today, right? But, seriously, I really enjoy seeing other people's book & movie lists. Right now this seems like a pretty easy way to manage them.



One of the many end-of-semester things I had to do this past week was organizing and hosting an induction ceremony for the student honor society in our department. I agreed to become the faculty co-sponsor only because I really like the guy who asked me to do it with him -- he's a great older guy, very pleasant and wise. And it's really not that much extra work, if the students are on the ball. But the group had basically fallen apart last year, so there were no student officers to help plan the lunch and ceremony. So it was up to me and my colleague. I did all the clerical stuff (sending out invitation letters to 90 qualified students, dealing with the forms and fees for the 20 who replied, sending out letters inviting them to the lunch, etc etc) and made him deal with the caterers and flowers etc., which is the stuff that makes me more anxious. The clerical stuff is tedious but he certainly wouldn't have been organized or competent enough to do it. So it was a good division of labor. (Though, I should probably note that if he were sharing the job with another old guy, they would have found a secretary to do some of the work. But that's not how it works for younger faculty, who don't have privileges to request things from staff.)

I also agreed to be the co-sponsor because I think such a group has potential on a campus like ours, potential that isn't often realized. As an urban school with a mostly commuter student base, there aren't a lot of ways for students to get to know each other outside of class. And few opportunities for us as a department to recognize and honor our best students. Some years this honor society group doesn't really do anything; some years they have theatre outings or activities like literary readings -- things for literature nerds to do. And I feel like I have to support the nerds, you know?

The lunch & ceremony went off pretty well -- the students seemed to like it, the former faculty sponsors, who are always invited, said it was nice, and (perhaps best of all) I heard two of these colleagues in the women's bathroom later that day saying "that was nice" "yes, the lunch was nice" "yes, I liked the chicken" -- since I was in the stall unbeknownst to them, I guess it means they liked the lunch. I was a little worried that they'd say something less complimentary and then I'd either have to come out and face them or hide in the stall for a while.

But as I was up at the podium reading my part in the induction ceremony (it is a script from the national organization) I had one of those moments of looking down at the scene as if from a great distance, and I thought "what the heck am I doing up here?" Because not only was I never a member of a student club, I have never been a part of any organization that involves a ceremony for joining. Nor any organization that elects officers, except for the MLA. I'm all for community -- I've been part of various discussion groups and social gatherings and political things at various points in my life. But never in this sort of mainstream official sense. I was never in student government. I've never been a part of anything with the word "club" in the title. At heart, I'm suspicious of organized community, suspicious of any group that would make it easy for me to be a part of it. (As you can probably tell, I don't come from a church/temple background either.)

And yet, here I am, shaking these students' hands and encouraging them to become active participants in the organization. Very, very weird. I don't think it's quite "selling out," since I have nothing against student clubs in principle. But it doesn't feel quite like me, either. It's just part of my job. And, thankfully, one part of my job that is over until next year.


countdown to mid-May

  • three more teaching days, including today
  • one more dissertation defense
  • two PhD oral exams
  • 55 post-doc applications to review
  • 42 scholarship award applications to review
  • one more set of final papers to grade
  • final exams to give and grade
  • six different committee meetings of more than one hour's length (already scheduled; more to happen after the initial meetings re scholarships and post-docs)
  • one letter of recommendation for colleague
  • one application for a travel grant
  • departmental student awards presentation and lunch
  • roundtable panel discussion I have to participate in
This is just the leftover, the residue after the past two weeks' flurry of activity. And these are the parts of my job that don't really "count," when our meagre raises are on the table.

Sigh. Time to go get ready for class.


Grey's Anatomy

Among marketers and casual reviewers of films, there is a long-standing assumption that when heterosexual pairs go to the movies, female viewers will watch "male" films, but that men have to be really persuaded to watch "female" films. Thus the term "chick flick" has become a descriptive label that doesn't really say anything about content -- it's more about presumed audience behavior.

Several years ago, Janice Radway's research in Reading the Romance suggested that purchasers and readers of mass-market romance novels would frequently choose them based on aspects of setting -- one might be a reader who liked historical romances, another wants novels set in Paris or New York. Because the genre offers fairly conventional characterization and plot structures, the background details were actually very important to many consumers.

I've been thinking about both of these things in relation to the new medical drama show on ABC, Grey's Anatomy, which focuses on a group of young MDs doing a surgical internship in Seattle. There's a long history of television shows that select a professional situation -- medicine, law, police work -- to provide the backdrop to the interpersonal relations among the characters. The advantage of these professions is that each of them provides a daily supply of new patients/clients/criminals and new ethical or moral situations with which the protagonists have to come to terms. I suspect that for viewers, these backgrounds operate in much the same way as the settings of romance novels -- one might prefer crime drama, medical drama, or law drama, even though the emotional or ethical content boils down to much the same thing. It's just dressed up a little differently.

What's distinctive about this show is that there are three women in the central group of interns, and they work under a female resident. At least one gossip columnist has termed it "FelicMD" to point out its affiliations to so-called "chick TV." And yes, there's plenty of sexual tension between Meredith Grey and one of the attending physicians, who she slept with in a one-night stand before starting work at the hospital. But the fact that we can have a girly doctor show is a great cultural place to be in, no? It's not a perfect show, but it does try to offer a range of both female and male characters, which is pretty unusual in the professional soap/drama shows.

What's also interesting to me -- this show comes on after Desperate Housewives, which is how I wound up watching it. And both of them use a voice-over narrator who provides a theme or motif at the opening and some kind of concluding remark. In DH, it's the neighbor whose suicide started the show, and in GA it's Meredith Grey, the main protagonist. So these shows seem to me to be reaching for a kind of literary feel. Certainly DH follows the format of 19th-century serial fiction, with tension-producing twists at the end of episodes and the gradual unfolding of characters' interconnections. Grey's Anatomy, on the other hand, isn't in the thriller/suspense mode -- the first-person narration provides the Bildungsroman framework that makes each episodes events just a lesson for the protagonist's personal growth and development.

I don't watch enough television to know how common the voice-over narrator is -- it seems unusual to me, but perhaps you know of other examples?


it's still poetry month


WHEN do I see thee most, beloved one?
When in the light the spirits of mine eyes
Before thy face, their altar, solemnize
The worship of that Love through thee made known?
Or when in the dusk hours, (we two alone,)
Close-kissed and eloquent of still replies
Thy twilight-hidden glimmering visage lies,
And my soul only sees thy soul its own?

O love, my love! if I no more should see
Thyself, nor on the earth the shadow of thee,
Nor image of thine eyes in any spring,—
How then should sound upon Life's darkening slope
The ground-whirl of the perished leaves of Hope,
The wind of Death's imperishable wing?

-- Dante Gabriel Rossetti, from the sonnet series The House of Life (1870/1881) (This sonnet is numbered III in the 1870 series, and IV in the much-altered 1881 version.)


literary study and pleasure

There's been all kinds of commenting theatrics going on over at the Valve and Crooked Timber the past couple of days (aptly characterized by Sean McCann as a version of pro wrestling or bad TV) -- I'm not going to provide links to specific comments because if you have the fortitude to read any of them, then you probably also have the inability to resist reading the whole mess. GZombie has been almost the sole defender of literary studies as it is actually practiced -- as it actually resembles what I've seen in the English departments I've been a part of. I haven't jumped into the fray because it hasn't really been about content. One guy says something rude, then someone else puts him into a headlock. Two guys in the audience go wild and rush the stage. Or something like that.

Some of the claims being bandied about in those comment threads include statements like this:
  • there is a "crisis" in literary studies because (1) the guy on the street can't understand the published articles and they use specialized language; (2) because English lit profs don't "appreciate" or "love" literature in the way that the guy on the street (or the academic in another field) thinks they should or (3) because they've been messing with the Canon, and look how complicated things are now.
  • literary study shouldn't be part of the academy because (1) it doesn't train people for jobs; (2) it doesn't make people into Novelists and Poets; or (3) because it doesn't result in tangible new things as scientific inquiry does.
There's more, but that gives you an idea. Most of these are pretty familiar claims -- and pretty tired-seeming by now.

But as I've been thinking about why this little tempest has been stirred up in the ways that it has been over the past few days, it strikes me that pleasure (or "love") is at the core of many of these claims. I've already expressed my irritation with the way that people in all sorts of other fields think they can go around announcing that there's a "crisis" in literary studies, and that they know the way to fix it, when most of them are not currently nor were formerly part of a Literature or English department. Yes, scholars in literary study frequently draw on scholarship in other fields (such as history, art history, music, etc) , for which we are sometimes criticised -- but I have never read attacks on the overall structure, goals, and methods of any another field that are mounted in the ways that attacks on English are.

Why is this? In part, because (as gzombie has been tirelessly reminding the CT/Valve crowd) "literature" and "literary studies" are two different things. Just as rocks and geology are different. But I suspect there more people who feel passionately about some literary text or texts than there are people who feel passionately about particular stones.

I'm not against passion, or the love of literature. Far from it -- I, and every person I know who teaches literature, feel passionately about it. But -- and this is key -- the difference between those of us who practice literary studies and the people who are suggesting that our departments be disbanded is that we don't think that intellectual engagement or logical analysis destroys passion, love, or pleasure. Instead, we believe that learning about the contexts (aesthetic, formal, historical, social, cultural) of a work of art helps us understand its power. Learning to read closely, to attend to specific semantic nuances, rhetorical strategies, and artistic choices visible in a text, develops our skills as interpreters of all sorts of texts. Human beings live in a world largely accessible to us through language -- learning how language works in different sorts of texts helps us become better readers, writers, speakers, and thinkers.

As gzombie said, literary study is not a vocational degree. And that is perplexing to administrators or researchers in other fields where the goals and outcomes seem more clear cut. The liberal arts degree in the modern university often fuctions as a site of resistance to or critique of the utilitarian vocational model that has proven its profitability. So, business majors say "what will you do with that" and English majors say "it doesn't matter because right now, I'm doing what I love: reading, writing, and thinking." I'm vastly oversimplifying, but I think that pleasure is threatening to some observers. I've never yet encountered a student who's told me "well, I really want to be an accounting major, but my parents are forcing me to study English." The great joy of teaching upper-level English courses is that students are there because they want to be. Sure, maybe they think they only love Shakespeare and don't want to read anything more recent; or maybe they think they don't like poetry and would prefer to read novels. We have distribution requirements for the degree that force students to expand their horizons, to push beyond their comfort zones. So they might not all be overjoyed to be reading every single text that is assigned. But in general, we share with our students a perspective about how we choose to spend our time and our money -- a belief that art is meaningful.

Unlike oil, coal, or other geologic resources, art and meaning are infinitely renewable. Literature is not a zero-sum game: if you love a text, and I love a different one -- that's fine. And in fact, that's good. In a world in which so many forces work to limit human expression, constrain human behavior, and destroy human lives, why bother feeling threatened by someone else finding beauty, pleasure, or intellectual satisfaction in a text that doesn't give you that same experience? I think the idea that there are thousands of students studying something that they love -- and that that something might be in fact many different things -- is somehow distressing to some observers. The idea that there are multiple meanings in a poem, or different possible forms of pleasure runs counter to the puritanical strain deep within American culture that descends from an interpretive tradition deeply suspicious of literary texts. The fundamentalist reader is one who wants a text (and usually only one text) to mean only one thing. A reader who wants and claims certainty. Yes, there is a difference between President Bush and Harold Bloom. But it is a difference only of degree and not kind.

Why do I teach literature? Because it opens up more pathways, rather than limiting them. Because it helps us understand human beings as they have been, as they wish they were, as they currently are, and as they might someday be. Because (as the title goes) I'm in favor of thinking. In a world that wants to limit thought, art is one space of resistance.

a language quiz

(via Nels)

Your Linguistic Profile:

65% General American English

25% Dixie

5% Midwestern

5% Yankee

0% Upper Midwestern

Since I've moved around a lot, this probably isn't that far from the truth. And I tried to answer by what I actually say, rather than what I heard growing up. American linguistic variation is actually something I'm quite interested in. I would've added a few more questions to the quiz, though:
  • does motorcycle rhyme with "sickle"?
  • which syllable of "cement" gets stressed?
  • when you turn on a light switch, do you say that you "flip", "mash" or "burn" it?
  • what do you call the playground equipment that is a plank balanced on a stand: see-saw or teeter-totter?

clothing angst

I've been feeling kind of middle-aged lately. It's not about my hormonal suffering, or the lines in my face, or the changes in my physique -- which are all irritating from time to time, but don't really impact me very much. No, it's something even more shallow. It's all about my clothes.

I'm feeling in need of wardrobe revitalization -- which I can't do very much of, because I'm on the financial austerity plan. Over the past few years, I've radically cut down on clothing and shoe purchases, since those are all optional expenses. And my lifestyle really doesn't require much in the way of glam or fun clothing: I mostly need basic professional stuff to teach in (pants, jackets, shirts) and casual stuff for the weekend (jeans, t-shirts). I used to care a lot more about how I looked (back in the 80s when fashion was fun and I was young) -- these days I care more about whether my shoes are comfortable and if my clothes have pockets & are machine washable. (Sign #1 of middle age.)

Half of the jackets I teach in I've had for more than five years. At least one I've had for maybe 8 or 9 years. So they're showing some wear. And probably looking kind of outdated (however timeless I think my overall look might be) (Sign #2 of middle age).

Upcoming fashion demands: In the fall, I'm taking on a half-time administrative post which will require my being at the office more days per week, and hence more professional clothes. Plus more meetings with people in other depts etc, where I have to dress a bit better than I do in my own department. In June, I'm going to be teaching summer school -- and I *hate* summer clothes. I'm fine if I'm slouching around the house. But trying to look professional, and crisp, and put together is kind of tough for me if I can't wear a lot of layers.

Before I moved to this city, I used to shop with my friends for fun -- not necessarily to buy anything, but as a way of spending time together. I had one friend in particular who had a significant income and liked to spend it -- it was always fun to accompany her. I'm a great shopping assistant, and it's actually a relief to shop for someone else's size and wallet rather than my own. I don't have any girly friends in this city to shop with. So any shopping I do is either therapy or necessity. And, since I've cut out the therapy shopping (I need less of it these days and it's not in the budget) I only go to the store when I'm really looking for something. Which may be practical, but it means that I'm less in touch with what's in style. So there's a jarring sense of dislocation or confusion (why are there fabric flowers pinned on every jacket? what's up with the jeweled hippie tunics?) each time I shop (Sign of Middle Age #3).

I am not preppy. I am not classic. I am not that frumpy either.

but I am also not going to wear shirts unbuttoned to my ribs (why are the top two buttons missing from 95% of button/collar type shirts for women these days???). I am not going to wear a thing that looks like half of what my mother used to call "a slip" and call it a shirt. I am not going to fold up my pants floodwater style. (Ranting about current trends=Sign of Middle Age #4.)

And I don't know where to shop any more. The last time I was in Old Navy, which has been my main standby for years, I felt too old for most of the clothes. But I'm not WASPy enough for the Gap or Banana Republic -- I'm too short, my rear's too large, and I'm not blond, so the colors look sad. I don't want to shop at "department stores" where middle-aged people shop. I'm not going to start wearing Liz Claiborne or something like that, for goodness sakes.

Ack. So I get frustrated, and leave the store, and keep on wearing the same old clothes, which just confirms my middle-agedness.

and it's only going to get worse as I get older, right? sigh.


20 minutes

Over the last few weeks, I've been experimenting with different strategies for focusing my attention and trying to integrate my research & writing into my daily activities. Especially in April, when I have to attend dissertation committees, scholarship committees, special honors & graduation events, etc etc, it's almost impossible to find large blocks of research time. So I've been really trying to focus using small bits of time well. I'm not alone in this:

Jay Parini's column in last week's Chronicle talks about how writing can actually fit with teaching, rather than compete with it -- he mentions 3 key strategies that have worked for him: trying to use odd 20-30 minutes chunks of time; aiming to write 2 pages a day, every day; and having more than one kind of project going at a time. Of course, as creative writer & scholar, he has not only different projects, but different genres or modes to work in, which helps create variety and allows him to choose a writing task to match his current energy level and interest. But breaking my list of things to work on into different kinds of tasks has been helpful for me: maybe I don't feel smart enough to write brilliant prose at 1:30 a.m., but I can transcribe hand-written notes for a while. And just doing that helps me stay in touch with my project, and usually generates some new ideas or sentences.

Because I sometimes struggle with procrastination, I've been using a timer. I can make a deal with myself to sit down for 20 minutes and just start something. Usually, the timer will go off and I can then continue for another 10 minutes or so before taking a break -- I just need to settle down long enough to focus and start.

Jason Womack, one of the coaches featured on David Allen's website, has an interesting outline of how to use 30 minutes wisely:
Over the past year, I have noticed the call to action increase in my work and life. Speaking, writing, working out, remodeling the house, maintaining friendships (you know, having a life!) all demands my attention, energy and time. How have I managed it all? Special, dedicated, carved-out blocks of "focus-30-minutes." Creating a workspace out of a hotel desk, a bookstore table, even a coffee shop chair, I "work" on one thing for 30-minutes straight (lately, I've been setting a timer...).

I'm pretty exact about how I do it:
5 minutes: I warm up (just like when I go to the gym). I may journal, or even mind-sweep, my intended focus area and outcome for the work-session.
20 minutes: I work - having created a space and time without interruptions.
5 minutes: I look at what I accomplished, and if necessary, set up a time to continue if I have not finished what I set out to complete, capturing any open loops.

"Mind-sweep" and "capturing any open loops" are part of the Getting Things Done methodology -- basically meaning to clear your mental decks by jotting things down that still need further action or attention.

I really like his idea that you have to warm up a little before focusing on work -- it's helped me gain clarity about what I hope to accomplish in a particular session.

So I'm trying to retrain my mental picture of what "working" looks like. Forget the dream of 3 hours at a time -- especially since, in reality, my attention span just isn't that good any more. I need little breaks to get coffee or stretch or whatever. But once I've found 20 minutes, I can usually find 30 minutes. And maybe another 20 or 30 later in the day. Eventually, it should all add up.

quick links

The conservative so-called lefties are at it again. I don't usually even read Crooked Timber because I find the tone and tenor of discussion there so unproductive. The Valve is a recent CT offshoot, with uber-conservative credentials (ALSC, the anti-MLA).

G Zombie has written much of the same sort of response as I would have. I really resent it when people outside my discipline claim that they *know* what's going on in literary studies. Especially since they usually claim that Theory has Killed Literature, or some such thing. (um, isn't that so 1991?)

There's a misguided assumption seen in such attacks (and in the MLA parodies and so forth) that because we study and teach literature, something that anyone could read outside of class, that all of our work should be immediately transparent to nonspecialists.

Of especial interest: Cultural Revolution wants to start up a leftier group blog to actually talk about literature, ideas, philosophy, theory...


31 flavors of guilt

New Kid has a nice piece about making the transition from grad student to professor. Her comments resonate with me on a number of levels, and could easily spawn several separate posts: what grad school looks like at this distance; the transition from grad student to Assistant; and the transition from Assistant to Associate. Maybe I'll come back to some of those topics eventually.

But her post also raises a topic for me that's been floating in my mind for a while recently. (I have a whole corner of my brain for Potential blog posts, Half-Written posts, Never to Be Written but Only Imagined ones, and so forth.) And that's Graduate School Survivor's Guilt. Or maybe, to put a finer point on it, Academic Success Guilt.

Guilt was one of the biggest features of my transition from ABD to Assistant Prof. I was not a shining star in my department -- not one of the best-published or fastest to complete the diss. My advisor wasn't one of the hot shots whose students all got publisher's contracts for dissertations. My field wasn't even one of the things that the dept was really known for. And I was ABD when I went on the market. All of which meant that some people (including me) were pretty surprised when I got a t-t job during my first year on the market.

Quite frankly, the whole thing felt like a lottery draw. I had five convention interviews, but only one campus flyout. And that turned into a job offer. All it takes is one. And this job has been a really good fit for me -- a diverse student population, freedom to teach new things, located in a city I like. I totally won the lottery.

And so, I felt incredibly lucky and incredibly guilty at the same time. My two best friends from grad school didn't get t-t jobs that year. They both have t-t jobs now -- in some ways better ones than mine. But it took a while. Lots of other people I knew didn't get jobs that year. Lots of people I know are stuck in crappy jobs, or without jobs at all, in a system that claims to be about merit but is really a mixture of all kinds of random factors that are totally beyond anyone's control. The mysterious question of "fit' is a huge factor that has nothing whatsoever to do with intellectual ability or professional success.

Every time someone said "congratulations" or, even worse "you deserve this" I felt compelled to explain how it there was really an awful lot of luck involved. How it didn't really have anything to do with "deserving" -- after all, I can list 50 people who "deserve" jobs -- whatever the f** that means -- but they don't have them. There just aren't enough jobs available.

My friendships with those two friends suffered for a few years. We were suddenly no longer peers, no longer in this thing together. The sweat and tears we'd spilt over our dissertations no longer counted. Academe's hierarchies were splitting us up. It's really hard for people who've been adjuncting for a couple of years to feel friendly towards someone who has what they wanted to have. And it was hard for me to feel like I won but I had also lost.

All of this was a long time ago now -- seven years. I'm mostly over my guilt about getting this job. But that sense of discomfort with the unfairness of academe is still very much with me. Recently, some good stuff happened to me -- I got accepted to a conference, and someone put me into a footnote. I told a friend about the first thing, and really regretted it -- b/c she then tried to cut it down. Now, she is a Negative Nelly, but it reminded me that mostly, other people don't really want to hear your good news. It's easier to bond if you're both complaining.

I did blog about both of those good things. But during those same weeks, I was reading other people's blogs about disappointments on the job market, about crappy treatment as an adjunct, about misery of all sorts. And I really wondered if it was right or fair of me to post something that was so "rah rah yay me." Because I want to create an environment that's fair for all workers. I'd like to imagine a world where smart talented people do get rewarded. How can I celebrate something good that randomly happens to me when all these other people don't get what they should have? Actually, it's not the celebrating privately that's an issue. But telling it to the world? isn't that just arrogance of the worst kind?

There's some kind of ethical issue here -- it's not just about guilt, or not wanting people to think I'm stuck up. It's also about trying to make my peace with a system that allows me to think and write and talk for a living, but which is also smothering the vitality out of so many of its members. How to succeed and survive and even thrive but not lose sight of the dark side. How not to become bitter and negative about everything or bloated with overconfidence. Finding some kind of middle ground.


more poetry

Loving in the War Years

Loving you is like living
in the war years.
I do think of Bogart & Bergman
not clear who's who
but still singin a long smoky
mood into the piano bar
drinks straight up
the last bottle in the house
while bombs split
outside, a broken

A world war going on
but you and I still insisting
in each our own heads
still thinkin how
if I could only make some contact
with that woman across the keyboard

we size each other up
yes . . .

Loving you has this kind of desperation
to it, like do or die, I
having eyed you from the first
time you made the decision to move
from your stool
to live dangerously.

All on the hunch
that in our exchange of photos
of old girlfriends, names
of cities and memories
back in the states
the fronts we've manned
out here on the continent
all this on the hunch
that this time there'll be
no need for resistance.

Loving in the war years
calls for this kind of risking
without a home to call our own
I've got to take you as you come
to me, each time like a stranger
all over again. Not knowing
what deaths you saw today
I've got to take you
as you come, battle bruised
refusing our enemy, fear.

We're all we've got. You and I

this war time morality
where being queer
and female is as bad
as we can get.

--Cherríe Moraga, Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca pasó por sus labios

technorati tag:

one year

So it's been a year since I started this blog. Over that time, it's become something like the intellectual equivalent of . . . lingerie? (or at least what I imagine lingerie is like for those who wear it: I don't think that my Hanes cotton underwear and cheap bras from Target really count. Those are underwear.) What I mean is that this is a really great part of my life that I keep pretty secret, except from those closest friends who I don't think will reveal it, on purpose or by accident. I and others have said plenty at other times about the reasons for pseudonymity, so I'm not going to get into all of that. But there's something satisfying to me about having this life that flourishes under the surface, beyond what the day to day people around me have any idea of.

It's also kind of like writerly push-ups: something that if you do it regularly enough, gets less painful and helps you get stronger. Like push-ups, too, I'm often jealous of other people's prowess, and sometimes inspired. I know I'm never going to have deltoids like Ripley, but I can get my workout done and that's ok too.

The social dynamic has been really interesting to me -- the ways this practice both is and isn't social. I feel like I've encountered some amazing people who I'm really glad to know. Some I communicate with (on off-blog email or just in comments) and some I never do, but I listen/read. I'm good at listening, more reserved at speaking, IRL -- and by and large the same dynamics hold true for me here. Sometimes I'm "on" and sometimes I'm really not, and just don't feel like saying much. But I think I started this really for myself, never having any idea that other people would start reading it, much less commenting. That was a surprise.

There are many different tidal flows that govern the blog soup: the semester's rhythms, the force of external events, my neurochemistry, and yours too. There have been nights at 3 am when I've scoured my blogroll and can't find anything new to read and can't think of anything to say myself. And mornings at 8 when it seems that every single person has written a zillion interesting things and I have to prepare for class -- and then again that night at 10 I glance at the list and feel overwhelmed by what I'm not caught up on. It's not homework, silly, it's just blogs. "Just" the lives of all these other people that I'm now interested in. I think about you people during my days -- the books you've mentioned, the arguments, the losses, the joys.

But also it's about writing. Every day that I do read blogs, I come across someone, somewhere, writing about something in a way that catches my breath, makes me cry, makes me think, makes me smile. In this oh-so-visual world it is still possible for words to be juggled and handled and passed around. And that is a great thing.


On Waking Up 25 Minutes Early and Not Going Back to Bed

It is lucky for our puppy -- our puppy who is really grown, but is the baby of the house -- that I sleep on my right side, face out. Ready to receive her nose bumping mine, her soft kisses on my mouth, alerting me to morning being here already.

for Poetry Month

I have to say I'm really enjoying the poems on other people's blogs...

Here's one (so hard to pick just one) from a poet I once knew, with an academic theme no less:

Community College in the Rain

Announcement: All pupils named Doug.
Please come to the lounge on Concourse K.

Please join us for coffee and remarks.

Dougs: We cannot come. We are injured by golf cleats.

Announcement: Today we will discuss the energy in a wing
and something about first basemen.

Ribs will be served in the cafeteria.

Pep Club: We will rally against golf cleats today.
The rally will be held behind the gymnasium.

There is a Model T in the parking lot with its lights on.

Dougs: We are dying in the nurse's office.
When she passes before the window, she looks like a bride.

Karen (whispers): We are ranking the great shipwrecks.

Announcement: In the classroom filled with dishwater light,

Share your thoughts on public sculpture.

All: O Dougs, where are you?

Dougs: In the wild hotels of the sea.

-- David Berman, Actual Air

technorati tag: poetrymonth


scenes from my day

  • My least favorite student (the one who is barely understandable -- I think due to a mixture of second-language difficulty and learning disability) asked me about the course I'm teaching next fall (registration starts soon). Why is it that there is at least a 50% chance that my irritating students come back for more?
  • An older student (60ish) cried in my office because she thinks she's too old to get a Masters degree when she graduates but wishes she had done this 40 years ago. She used my last Kleenex and apologized. I tried to get her to stay and talk but she was too embarrassed. (The younger ones who cry usually aren't embarrassed at all about it.)
  • A senior colleague in a panic requested my help "because you're good at this sort of thing." That always means something with computers. Yes, I explained, once you've saved your document to a removable disc, even after you take the disc out of the drive, the folder & file will still appear on your computer until you've refreshed the view. (add that to the Too Stupid Even To Use a ***ing Mac files)
  • Email from a student I barely remember wanting a rec letter for med school. Why do they think a letter from an English teacher will do them any good?
  • Saw three of my students in the hallway after class still talking about the book. Now that's a good feeling.



My colleagues in the hard sciences (and perhaps in the social sciences as well?) are usually able to calculate in an extremely empirical fashion their "impact on the field" (as our P&T committees require) because their disciplines publish almost entirely in journal articles, which are fed into the citation indexes (our library subscribes to Web of Science; maybe there's another one too?). So they can track how many times a particular article of theirs has been cited by someone else.

That doesn't really work for those of us in the humanities -- sure, there is a "humanities" section of the Web of Science database, but it's woefully inadequate as a measure of our citation rates, because many humanities fields rely on book publication as the supreme measure of academic and professional success. I don't know of any database that tracks footnotes in books -- it seems an unwieldly and unlikely undertaking.

So there's a certain sense of unreality about my publications -- they're circulating out in the world, at least in theory -- but I'm not kidding myself -- the numbers of people who read the kind of journals I'm published in is fairly small. So whenever I hear from someone that they saw an article of mine, I'm pretty stoked. (They don't even have to have read it -- just seeing it in the table of contents is good enough.)

Obviously, if someone else published an article about something directly related to my area of focus I might see it and therefore know if they cited me. But so far I don't think I've stumbled across any that way. (Again, I'm pretty realistic about my limited "impact" on my limited sub-field.)

But I had a great experience of synchronicity this past weekend. The conference I was presenting at involved scholars from two disciplines. I met Professor D , who is in the Other Field, early on in the weekend (it was a small conference, very good for the chatting and networking). At the closing dinner party, he told me that he'd been in his hotel that afternoon reading a new book in his field by Esteemed Scholar -- and had happened to read a chapter that cites something I published! Had he read that chapter before meeting me, or a few days after the conference, I'd never have known. Especially since this book in Other Field isn't something I'd be likely to pick up or read very carefully if I did.

It just goes to show that you really never know who might see your work...

Monday Monday

The conference was really successful, I think -- both for my department/institution, and for me personally. My paper was well received, and I actually enjoyed some of the events far more than I had expected to.

But now I really wish I could have my weekend, since it was spent with the conference. I took yesterday afternoon totally off from work -- only checked my mail once, and didn't spend any time at the computer for the rest of the day. The last couple of weeks have been pretty crazy with several projects coinciding (or colliding). So yesterday was a nice day (good weather, and my gf had the day off as well) -- but today's been tough. I'm tired & cranky, my house is a mess, there are piles of laundry etc that have to fit into the weekday routine. I'm not yet adequately prepared for my teaching this week (and as we all know, I can't just try to wing it again like I did last Thursday.) Most irritating or painful: I got really pumped up about my research over the weekend -- but right now I need to take care of grading, and writing some assignments, and the paperwork to get reimbursed for some expenses, etc. Blech. I've been riding an adrenaline high for a couple of weeks and I guess the crash is coming. (not sure I'm all the way at the bottom yet...)


local conference

This morning I'm presenting a paper at a conference that's being held in my city, cosponsored by my institution and another. It started last night and so far seems to be going well -- good papers, good conversations. Even though I'm presenting today, I'm also feeling relieved -- this is the part I know how to deal with -- last night I had to make introductions and host a reception -- and I've been busy for weeks with all the little details: food and server for the reception, making sure visitors know where to park and how to find the building, dealing with people's travel arrangements. Giving a paper? talking about my ideas? that stuff I know how to do.

Although it was really nice to come home last night and collapse on the couch with my gf and the dogs, I missed the clarity of focus that you get when you travel to a conference: I didn't have the plane ride to read over the pre-circulated abstracts, and I didn't quite have all of my social and intellectual energy mustered for the event, because I was still in my real, local, life.

But it's a welcome luxury to spend a couple of days talking about ideas and texts to smart peers, rather than students. This is the best part of academia, the one I rarely get to experience.