- Hey, my blog got me a (future) publication! I’ve been invited to do a very short, personal essay on managing down-time in academia; it’s for a collection of essays on life in the humanities. I know the editor knows of me mainly through the blog (though he knows my real-life identity, too), and it’s the main reason why he invited me to contribute. OK, so it’s not that big of a publication (not scholarly, not peer-reviewed), but it will be easy and it’s not due until next year. Also, some of the other contributors on board are VIPs, and I think it’s important that not *all* of the contributors are VIPs at fancy R1 kind of places. One of the things this blog has always been about is what life is like at a regional public university, and a collection of essays about the life of humanists should reflect the diversity of careers and institutional affiliations we have. So, I said yes. For those reasons and more.
- Wait, it’s summer, right? Well, technically it’s not yet “summer” (as in the season that begins later this month), but on the academic calendar it is, and it is strangely cold today! Brrrr, it’s 60F outside!
- Just how small (for a city) is Rust Belt? This small: my dental hygienist is in the same running group I just joined. And my dentist lives in my neighborhood (according to the hygienist — I actually haven’t seen the dentist about).
- Oh yeah, I’m trying to get back into the running groove. I joined a 5K training group, organized by the running store in town. I’m in the second slowest group, where once upon a time I would have been in one of the two fast ones, but hey, at least I’m running again! They have a marathon training program, too, and I may do that later in the year. If only they’d had these programs back when I was training all on my own. First of all, it’s a *lot* easier to do tempo runs and speed workouts with others than by oneself. Second, if I’d had faster people to run with, I might have gotten faster. And third, if I’d paid for training and had a group to meet even just once a week, I might not have dropped out of running like I did. I got so bored doing it by myself, especially once I met my goal of qualifying for and running the Boston Marathon. And hey, maybe I’ll meet some new people outside of the university.
- Speaking of meeting new people, I had the funniest interchange with a neighbor the other day. I was out gardening (my other, newish hobby — I need to post pictures here for those of you who aren’t my FB friends) and she stopped to say hello, introduce herself, and tell me she was on the way to a “Chip Off the Old Block” party (apparently other neighbors had rented a chipper and were inviting everyone to come use it). She said she’d “heard about” me from one of the other neighbors. (Really?) And then she said something about not knowing any of the other neighbors except the “old people” — her words. (Our neighborhood still has a lot of original owners, many of whom are of the grandparent sort.) She kind of encouraged me to come along, but not very directly. I still had a lot of gardening to do and I was all grubby (from an earlier run *plus* gardening — I was a stinky, dirty, hot mess!) or otherwise I might have joined her. It wasn’t until later that I realized that she was kind of awkwardly trying to make a new friend — she was roughly 30- or 40-something, I think, and maybe was looking to connect with someone who wasn’t one of the “old people.” It was a little like a playground interaction when someone’s parent says to the kid, “Go make a new friend.” I could use a neighborhood friend, but now I don’t know what to do — I don’t even know for sure what house she lives in, and even if I did, what would I do? Knock on the door and say, “Can the nice lady come out and play?”
- Speaking of our neighborhood, besides friendly neighbors and dentists, it has a surprising abundance of wildlife. For instance, our yard is often full of these guys:
- And a few weeks ago, we had visits from a pair of these turkeys. No, I mean *actual* *turkeys*:
- Other critters in the yard include the usual suspects: chipmunks, a cardinal pair nesting in our viburnum, a robin pair who first tried to raise a brood in our holly (but the eggs all disappeared, alas — presumably taken by predator birds, since they seemed to disappear without any disturbance to the bush around the nest) and now are building a nest in the lilacs, and big, fat bumblebees who love our flowers. (So frogs and bees are doing fine by us!) There are lots of other bird species, too, but I’m terrible at bird identification.
- I’m really enjoying the show of flora and fauna in the yard because Bullock and I finally got deck furniture (other than my little bistro table and chairs, which I’ve had since I moved to Rust Belt, and which sits on the lower deck with the grill). Until today, the weather has been so gorgeous and perfect that I’ve been doing a lot of work outside on the deck. Poor Bullock, who is now chair of his department, has not been able to enjoy it until evening. He’s a little jealous.
- Here’s our upper deck with our swank, retro furniture (which I think fits the lines and colors of the deck perfectly and makes the 80s style of the deck suddenly seem as mid-century modern as the furniture):
- In the evenings, we’ve been enjoying a number of different seasonal, regional, and microbrew beers on the deck. Around here, Bell’s Oberon always says it’s summer, but my new favorite of the moment, especially with the chill still in the air, is 5 Rabbits’ 5 Vultures beer. It’s a nutty brown ale made with ancho chilis in it, and has a kind of chocolatey or molasses-like quality. It’s kind of like what a mole sauce would be if it were a beer, if that makes sense.
- And finally, to bring it back to work-related news, I’ve finally got a 21-page working draft of the article I’ve been toying off and on with for WAY too long, and it finally know what it’s going to be when it grows up. Huzzah! This baby WILL be finished by the end of the summer. Must be all that inspiration I get while sitting on the deck!
I don’t even know if I’m alluding to that book title in a way that makes sense, but it will have to do.
So, I’m working on an article that I’m *determined* to finish by the end of this summer. I’ve been toying with it for way too long now because it kept getting moved to back burners because of other work with deadlines, but this summer is free of such deadlines, so NOW is the TIME to get it DONE. (Yes, I’m now shouting. I do that when I get excited. Also, I apparently write in overly long sentences that verge on being run-ons.) *However*, it is proving harder than I expected; that’s where the cheese comes in.
See, once upon a time, this article was about X. Then another article came out on the subject that kind of blew my mind. It didn’t scoop me, but I had to take it into account. As a result, I kept fiddling with what my argument was. From X it evolved into X-and-Y, then more-Y-than-X, then back to X, but dropping Y, and adding Z. And so on. Finally, this summer, I think I decided what I wanted it to be, and sat down last week to map it out. And then this week I started rewriting. AND THEN IT ALL CHANGED AGAIN! AS I WAS WRITING! (See, excited again!) I really should nickname it “Whac-a-mole,” because it feels like playing that arcade game, but the idea that I’m moving my own cheese — changing my mind about what the argument is as I write it, and then needing to deal with that change in order to get what I want (a publishable article) — works, too.
From what I’ve heard, this happens to other people all the time, but this is not at all how I usually write. I’m the have-it-all-mentally-mapped-before-I-even-start type, not the create-as-I-go type. Talk about having to deal with a change in rhythm! It’s kind of exciting, actually, especially since the changes may make it a better argument, but it’s also kind of frustrating, as I really do like to have the abstract whole conceptualized as I write. I worry that I’m working very inefficiently this way, or that the article could become a mess without my realizing it. (Yeah, that’s what another reader is for, I know. I’ll have to enlist a colleague or friend.)
So how do you write? Do your ideas and arguments change as you write? What do you do when they do?
Every year I have a little trouble transitioning from the rhythms of the academic year to the rhythms of summer. Even when I make myself detailed schedules — breaking up the planned work into chunks of time so I don’t while it away staring into space, and so that I have concrete plans for my best working hours — it still takes me awhile to make myself stick to it. I think I need to remember that and just give myself the last couple weeks of May to make the transition, and not feel such guilt for not working at full speed just yet. It really is a very different pace of work, with no or few external deadlines or structure, and it takes some time to adjust from the highly scheduled and highly interactive semester to the seemingly bottomless chasm of time and quiet that summer offers.
I’m also adapting this year to a different work/home rhythm with Bullock, who is now chair of his department, and so has to go in every day. In the past, when we both worked from home in the summer, we could ease quietly into whatever our individual rhythms called for, in our various spaces in the house. But now mornings have a bit of bustle to them that they didn’t previously have, and it’s throwing me off a bit. One of things I put on my summer schedule was an hour of language study each day — I’m trying to learn Italian, partly for the heck of it, partly so I can teach Dante and Boccaccio without feeling like a total fraud — and I put it on the schedule in the morning so that I could warm up my brain that way. But Bullock is often still here during that hour, and I feel a little self-conscious about doing the oral practice right now, as I’m still in the tourist phrase-book stage. I’ve got to find something else to warm up with — and NOT e-mail and NOT Facebook! — while Bullock is still getting ready for his day, something that can be interrupted more easily, too.
And I really do need a warm-up “exercise.” I’m a slow starter in the morning. I’m trying to trick myself into being a quicker starter by reading something at least semi-work-related over breakfast and coffee, instead of my usual Entertainment Weekly or Esquire (both of which come to our household in Bullock’s name, but which I end up reading) — a leisure reading that can stretch into my work day because I lose track of time. It doesn’t have to be research-related — lately it’s been the Kinoshita and McCracken companion to Marie de France (whom I often teach, but don’t work on) — but it needs to be somewhat substantive. But at any rate, I do not wake up eager to work on whatever research I’m engaged in at the moment. I have to get there. (Side note: I also don’t wake up eager to go for a run, not even when I was in peak marathon-training mode. I’ve always been more of an afternoon runner than a morning runner. I think all of this may have to do with my extremely low blood pressure and heart rate, even when I’m not in shape.)
My problems getting started and getting going this year are compounded by the fact that in the fall I’ll be teaching an 8 a.m. class (followed by a 9:30 a.m. class), after 10 years of teaching mostly in the 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. range and never earlier than 10:30 or 11 a.m. A decade of that kind of schedule creates some deep habits for both work rhythms and all the other rhythms that surround work, including sleep. As my mother’s daughter, I’ve inherited a tendency to be a bit of a night owl, though never to the degree she was. (She often stayed up until 3 a.m reading and watching movies on cable.) But still, I am most certainly NOT a morning person, but an 8 a.m. class means I’ll have to be up and *on* earlier than I’ve ever needed to be as an adult. (My college and grad school institutions didn’t have 8 a.m. classes, and my jobs before grad school started at 9 a.m. on most days, sometimes at 8:30. I’ve been lucky.) That’s an adjustment after all this time doing things otherwise. So this summer, I’ve set out to readjust my internal clock, getting up a little earlier bit by bit.
But that’s been a little difficult already, because after years of being “on” in the evenings (rarely did I have a schedule that didn’t at least have a 5:45-7 p.m. class, and sometimes later ones), I’ve developed a general tendency not to really “come down” and be able to sleep until 11 p.m. or later. And this past semester, I developed some intermittent insomnia that kept me up even later. To combat it, I started playing what I think are soothing games (mainly on my iPhone) to help me relax, although Bullock thinks they keep my mind too active. Perhaps they do; here’s one ‘free draw’ drawing I did in Draw Something 2 one night:
So yeah, the insomnia is making changing my biorhythms “interesting,” to the say the least. I should probably ban electronics — especially really glowing ones — from the bedroom. In Sleepwalk With Me — a very funny, if low-budget and low-key movie about *extreme* sleepwalking issues — comedian Mike Birbiglia says all of the advice he’s been given to help him sleep and to sleep well includes totally powering down all electronics hours before bed time. I should probably take that advice, huh?
OK, so, if you’re still with me, I’m having trouble getting into the summer work groove, and having trouble sleeping as well. All of these are issues of changing “rhythm” in my work and personal life, and I’ve got to adjust to these new rhythms. There’s still one more rhythm adjustment to come next semester. Not only will I be teaching an 8 a.m. class, but I’ll be teaching it *four* days a week instead of two, for 8 weeks instead of 16. In the first half of the semester I’ll have 3 separate classes, two on M-W and one on MTWR, but in the second half of the semester I’ll have only the 2 M-W classes remaining. I’m kind of interested in seeing what this does to my teaching/research balance of time. On the one hand, I’ll be completely *done* with one class half way through the semester; but on the other hand, that means I’ll have to do *all* of its prep and grading in the first half. Meanwhile, I have two honors thesis students, and work with them will probably ramp up in the second half of the semester. However, the MTWR class is a section of one of the other two classes I’m teaching, so having *finished* one version of it mid-way through the semester, I’ll have most of the prep done for the other version of it for the second half of the semester (with some adjustments). Still, this is all going to be VERY strange, so I think I shouldn’t expect to have as productive a fall as I might have otherwise anticipated.
So see, that’s another reason why I need to get on the case this summer and use it *well*. I know, life’s hard. /sarcasm But the constantly changing rhythms of academic life are part of what makes it different from other professions. Not better, not worse, just different. I suppose it keeps it from being that rut of the work week, especially since even in the school year, every day is a little different, but it’s a challenge that needs to be managed over and over and over.
Huh, I guess that’s where the regular rhythm is — in always having to adjust one’s rhythms!
Hello all. Time to get back to some substantive posting, now that the semester is *almost* over here in Rust Belt. I’ve got two more classes to teach this week, then a final to give and grade, and a set of grad student papers to grade, and I’m done for the school year! Huzzah!
Anyway, calculating and tallying some final grades in my classes got me to thinking about how and why I grade participation/preparation/engagement in my classes, and why I run them the way I do, with so much of the burden to “bring it” on the students. But this semester I was also reminded of how I really need to be more transparent with the students about why I do this and how it benefits them, and I need to give clearer instructions in what is and isn’t productive participation. In some of my upper division classes where I have a rather complicated system of short assignments that are specifically geared towards participation, I have equally detailed handouts on the do’s and don’t's of participation, and on what counts, how it’s scored, etc. Although I think my gen-ed classes would be overwhelmed by such a document (and also would never read it), I think I might use an adapted form there.
But first, let me tell you what I do, why I do it, and how I grade it and see what you think. Partly because I came up through a grad school department with HUGE survey classes run as lectures with discussion, I got a lot of training in running discussions as add-ons to “content delivery” in the lectures, and I got used to running my classrooms as discussions. But more important, I saw that a lot of the core skills that students learned and *retained* from those survey classes were gained either from what we did in section or from the papers they wrote (usually seeking one-on-one guidance from us TAs), which the TAs advised and then graded. So there was a clear if tacit connection between discussion section and assessment. (There were usually prof-designed final exams, too, but they always seemed secondary to the papers. And even there, it was the TAs who ran review sessions and taught students *how* to do those exams well.) This is not a charge against the engaging professors who ran the lectures — it’s really more about the lecture form itself.
But when I was in grad school, I was working with a population of students who were MUCH more willing to talk, to try, to throw something at the wall and see if it sticks, than are my current students. They were also really freakin’ driven to come to office hours for extra help. We used to have lines snaking down the hallway of students waiting to see the survey course TAs. But here at RBU, not so much. Polite, reticent, midwestern, working class — whatever the explanation, I don’t get as many lively conversations here as I did in grad school, unless I prod with carrots, sticks, and tasks. (Although, as I mentioned on Facebook a few weeks back, the general ed students — the *non* English majors — are more willing to talk about literature than the English majors are. Theory: less is at stake for them.) So that’s one of the reasons why I grade it, to give an *incentive* for participating.
Over time, though, I’ve refined it from a mere “say *something*” grade (which just unfairly rewards natural extroverts, some of whom talk just to talk) to a “you contributed to the value of this class for yourself and others” grade (which still leaves out the really shy folks a bit) to a “you’ve been actively engaged in this class on a regular basis and may also have contributed to the value of it” grade. Here’s why — and then below, I’ll tell you how. As I said above, I learned early on that students learn from discussion and active engagement, and I don’t have to tell *you* that. Talking through things is a great way to learn, even if you say something off the wall at first. Talking can also be full of blather, so it gives me an opportunity to rein in the kind of flabby, off-topic free-association that students sometimes give into when interpreting a text for the first time — so I can teach them not to do that in their written work, where they’re graded more for *how* they express themselves and their arguments. Or, I can urge them to be more specific, to give examples, to *show* me in the text — things I’m likely to write in the margins of papers if they don’t practice avoiding those pitfalls beforehand. All that counts in my book — it’s a conversational rough draft of thinking, and I want to value it as such. But what also counts is being visibly engaged in other, quieter ways: taking notes, listening and thinking (you can often tell by people’s expressions). And being prepared counts. I kind of slacked off on this in my gen-ed poetry class this semester, but at the start, I’d planned to note who had notes from their reading and preparation and who didn’t, but I *did* know when someone was trying to interpret something on the fly that they were reading for the first time. In some classes — for instance, my Old English class — not being prepared is more obvious (either you’ve translated that line or you haven’t!), but it’s noticeable in discussion, too. (And it’s especially noticeable if I start class with in-class writing based on the reading, something I need to do more often!)
What doesn’t count, as far as I’m concerned, is bs and posturing (OMG, do *not* say, “I haven’t done the reading, but…” to me or make it obvious in other ways that that’s the case), or talking just to score points, or monopolizing the conversation. Or interrupting and blurting things out before other people have had a chance to process and contribute. I’m a muller myself, so I want to make room for mullers. Plus, I’m losing my hearing, and blurters and interrupters make it harder for me to hear/process what other people are saying, so they’re essentially disrupting someone else’s contribution and learning. And lately I’ve been getting a lot of students who just want to restate facts or share some random trivia from the text that they remember or read elsewhere or that’s only even vaguely relevant. I need to make clearer, in the nicest way possible, that that’s not really productive participation, that it’s not interpretative enough. I say in “the nicest way,” because I suspect a lot of these guys — and they are mostly men — may be on the autism spectrum or something. I know they can’t change entirely if that’s the case, but I need to make room for the productive “thinking through” kind of participation I want, and so need to get them to dial it back as best as they can.
And that’s what it’s really about for me — the “thinking through” — and why I work so hard to encourage students to come to class with some nascent ideas and to develop them more in class. It’s not about brownie points or being charming or getting attention. But I think I need to make that *all* clearer to the students, that what counts is *productive* participation and engagement. And I need to make clearer to them that it’s OK to get something wrong or say something wacky — better in discussion than in a paper or on an exam. About half way through the semester in one of my classes this year, there was a moment in class, something someone said, that kept me thinking about a poem all weekend after the class. And so the next week I told them that, and used it as an example of how their *classmates’* comments, too, matter, and can be spurs to their own thinking. I need to say such things early and often, to make clear how it all matters to them and their learning — and hence their grades. I also need to make clear what’s *not* productive because — oh my! — the last three semesters running I’ve had some of those blurty, oddball, non-stop talkers in every one of my darn classes and they eventually drive everyone nuts to a greater or lesser degree, and that’s just not good for anyone, including them. And I think some students think that participation is some kind of zero-sum game — that if they’re not talking at all times, they’re losing points or something.
But that’s not how I grade it. I actually have a very generous system, but you’d be surprised at how many people blow it. If you come to class, assuming you don’t do something negative to *lose* the points (e.g., putting your head down on your desk and going to sleep, at which point, you might as well not be there), and assuming you don’t do something to prove you haven’t actually come prepared, then you get 2.5 points. Then, if you engage productively (by any of the ways mentioned above, including the quiet kinds) — and once is all it takes — you get another point. I generally have 30 class meetings a semester, so a person can actually earn an A+ in participation and preparation. A person can also miss three classes (absences are zeroes) and still get an A. Most students who blow the grade do so by excessive, unexcused absences. I give ‘make-up’ points for visiting me in office hours, too, and talking about the material. In a lot of my classes I lay out this system in the same handout that details the do’s and don’t's. Again, I think that might be too much in a gen ed class, but I think I need to give students a clearer understanding that yes, they really are being graded. (Oh, and btw, at the end of every class, I *immediately* enter those scores. And yes, my classes are small enough that I can remember distinctly who talked and what they said — or who left early or interrupted constantly or did something else distracting.)
I have assignments that foster engagement, too — discussion questions, ungraded but required homework (as in Old English), close reading exercises, etc. — but I still find it important and worthwhile to have a separate participation and preparation grade, and in many classes, it’s a high percentage of the grade. At another institution I might not give it such a big role, but at RBU, where so many of the students don’t know how to “do” college because they’re first-generation students, and don’t understand that discussion is practice for papers and essay exams, or that class isn’t just a passive content-delivery system (in the humanities, our classes have been “flipped” for a long time), I think it’s an important and valuable part of the learning process. And students at my university are more likely to take something seriously if they get a grade for it.
So, do you grade some form of participation, preparation, or engagement. If so, how do you grade it? What do you do to encourage it? Or, are you virulently opposed to the idea of a participation grade (I know some people are)?
“If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.” – Kathrine Switzer
I ran the Boston Marathon in 2007 (as you can read here and here and here, too.) My brother has run it many times now, including yesterday. He finished an hour before the explosions and was safe at his hotel when they went off, thank goodness, but my heart goes out to all the people injured and the families of the now three dead. And it goes out to everyone who has ever or will ever run or watch the Boston Marathon, because it has been irrevocably changed.
I don’t have the time or the words right now to say what I want to say about what this means for the sport or for Boston, and it’s too early to say what it means in general, or what it was all about. But I liked this piece in The Nation (from which my epigraph above comes), so I’ll leave it at that.
Updated to add: Ooh, and now here’s a New Yorker essay that offers Piers Plowman as a requium / solace for Boston. Lovely!
Hey all. Thanks for all of your comments on the post below, especially from newcomers who have never commented before. You were all very kind and helpful, and I appreciate it. And you’ll be glad to know I’m pretty much out of my funk now. Cutting down on the social media and *focusing* on the work actually really helped and got me excited about it again. Also, re-reading an invited talk I gave a year ago — to get back into the swing of a project – reminded me of what was cool and interesting about that project. And one other thing that has really helped is using a timer app on my iPhone for the dull parts of one of my projects. Using that, I work on the dull bits for about 10 minutes, then switch to reading some scholarship and criticism for a longer chunk of time or writing or some other task, then go back to the dull work, etc.
Anyway, just thought you might like an update. Meanwhile, I’ve got another question for you all, especially my long-time readers. I want to make a “Best of Quod She” menu on the right, because I’m kind of “coming out” at Dr. Virago in an important context, and I want to direct readers to the substantive parts of the blog. (They are free to browse around at will and admire Pippi’s beauty, of course, but I also want them to see that there *is* substance to the blog.) Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of posts like the “Speaking for the Dead” one, the one on “Debt,” the one from some years ago about the professionalization of the discipline, and then more medieval-specific ones such as the one on why students calling Margery Kempe “crazy” just plays right into the text’s hands. (I’m too lazy to link them here.) Are there other posts that you recall that should get the “Best of” treatment? You don’t have to find the link — you can just say, “Wasn’t there one about blah blah blah? I liked that one.”
As always, your help and feedback is appreciated!
One of the reasons why I haven’t been writing on the blog is that I’ve been in kind of a rut — a foggy state of Blah — for some time now, which doesn’t make for very interesting writing. The Blahs have especially hit my research work, but even teaching was getting kind of routine (until this semester — more on what shook things up in another post).
And no one wants to read about that, right? But then I thought about how Dr. Crazy uses her blog to get started in the morning — a big problem area for me — and so I thought maybe I might try that and see if it worked. And then I also thought that maybe it would be useful for people to read about a mid-career rut (or is it quarter-career? perhaps it’s more one-third-career), just like posts about being on the market or writing the first book and all those other proffie experiences are useful to current and prospective profs at or anticipating those stages. (Thank god for RSS readers, so that I know I have *some* audience still out there.)
Part of what I’m experiencing is related to the low morale at my university, but I don’t think I can chalk it *all* up to that. I bet if I had my dream job at a place full of unicorns and rainbows, I’d still be feeling stuck in my work right now. In fact, at Rainbow Unicorn University, I think it would be even worse because I’d be stuck *and* freaked out about becoming the dreaded deadwood because I hadn’t produce ten gazillion books every five years. At least here, a slower pace of research productivity is cool (and frankly, more humane, but that’s also a topic for another post). No, I think what I’m experiencing is a little more widespread and common and non-idiosyncratic.
OK, here’s where I am and how I feel about it right now. My first book was a modest success in my subfield of Middle English literature, and so the last few years were spent doing a lot of invited and necessary work — co-editing a new anthology of the genre of my sub-field, writing handbook chapters and articles on the state of the field, that sort of thing. And I’m running for election to a scholarly society in said field, and organizing a panel at a big upcoming conference of another society, both activities with the goal of opening up the subfield to non-specialists, because it’s a little too isolated — people outside it don’t read us and we’re frustrated by that, but part of that is because we’re off doing our own thing too much. So there’s a way in which I’m active in the area that got me the job, got me tenure, and so forth. But I haven’t really produced anything new in it in some time, and I’m frustrated by that. I have something in progress (an article), but I keep dithering about whether to do the relatively fast and easier version of it and get it *out* there in one of the subfield journals, or keep working on the more theoretically ambitious version of it, which involves me learning (or continuing to learn) all sorts of new stuff and would be sexier for the broader medieval and medieval-renaissance journals. The learning part is attractive, but it’s also slow. And I have been sitting on this thing for a long time now because it keeps getting shunted aside.
And the thing is, whichever version of that smaller work in progress I do, I kind of feel like that’s the last contribution I have to make to that particular subfield (unless my co-organizer of the above panel and I decide to do an edited collection, in which case I have a kind of meta-critical essay brewing — and if we don’t do the collection, there might be a place for it elsewhere). Once upon a time I had other ideas, but I feel like they’re methodologically and theoretically dull now. I feel a little like medieval literary studies has moved on without me while I was tinkering with my works in progress. So that’s part of my rut.
The other part of my rut is a similar “what now?” issue, but on a different topic. After and during a lot of the above, I also had a sabbatical in which I *started* on my new, big research project, but other than a few talks, including an invited one, on the work in progress, it hasn’t gotten much farther since that sabbatical (which was 2010-2011). And that new work isn’t at all related to the old work (except maybe it might involve the same class of readers and producers/patrons) — it’s a totally different genre. And I’m finding with this project, I’m having to learn and teach myself yet *more* bodies of knowledge — traditional methods and theories — which, again, is cool and interesting, but verrrrrry slow. And what’s especially frustrating with this project is that I don’t know where on earth it’s going or what it’s going to be. I have this body of texts — which I’m still sorting through; I’m still doing the “data collection,” so to speak — and I have about an article’s-length stuff to say about them, but is that it? Or is there a bigger picture? And if there’s a bigger picture, how should I be framing it? In what scholarly or theoretical conversation (or should I say gallery, to keep the picture-framing metaphor) does it fit? I feel like all my reading and thinking about it is totally scattershot, an effect not helped by fitting it in around teaching, etc.
At this point, you’re probably thinking that this doesn’t sound like a rut at all, that I’ve got all sorts of engaging projects. Yeah, but I feel like I’m dabbling. I feel unfocused and amateurish. And, because of the slowness and lack of clear contours, I feel frustrated. Half the time I just want to throw my hands up and say, “Fuck it, I’d rather be teaching. Maybe I should move to a 4/4 load and give up research.” Except that wouldn’t make me happy, either. In fact, part of the problem is that I’m isolated in my work and don’t have the stimulation of other people in my field or advanced students working on dissertations to teach me new things and keep me current. Giving up on research entirely would exacerbate that feeling and make my rut deeper (even if I keep reinventing my courses, which I always do). And it wouldn’t be good for the students, because one of things that keeps my teaching from being in a rut is bringing in new ideas from my research and others’ (that often includes new-to-me primary texts — there’s a lot of stuff out there that I don’t know and research of various kinds introduces me to it).
Another part of this Blah feeling, this rut, is the isolation. Remember when we used to think romantically how digital communications would solve the problem of the isolation of the single scholar who’s the only one in her field at her institution? Yeah. Right. Frankly, social media and other digital outlets just make me feel *more* isolated. All I see are the cool collaborations and energetic conversations of colleagues who get to talk face-to-face as well as online, and I feel shut out. I do have a collaboration with another scholar who lives in a totally different part of the country, but it’s not the same. Conferences help, but eventually you have to go home.
And the final piece of this is that I feel a little bit out of date and a bit left behind by various developments in literary studies, but especially by the confluence of digital humanities and manuscript studies and by the “new materialism,” all of which I’m really super interested in, but don’t quite feel capable of doing on my own. You know what would be really cool? If there were “mid-career post-docs” to retrain people like me. There’s a whole slew of cool digital humanities/mansucript post-docs out there right now, but you have to be within three years of your PhD to be eligible. When I win the lottery, I’m funding a series of mid-career post-doc sabbatical thingies, I promise. I think that’s what getting to me, too — I feel old before my time. I’m not really *mid* career; I’ve been in it for 10 years, starting at age 34, so if I retire at, say, 65, I’m not even a third through my career yet. Sheesh, that in itself is a little daunting. I have to do this for another 21 years? Will I always feel like this, this sense of Blah?
What say you, oh wise people of the internet? How do I shake off the doldrums? Do you ever feel like this? What do you do to shake off the Blahs and get out of the rut?
So, like Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, I had to write a short “position paper” recently. Mine is for a special issue of a journal dedicated to new research and research opportunities in the sub-field of medieval literature for which I am currently most know. Yeah, you know, the one that is the subject of my book and in which I have a co-edited anthology coming out in two weeks.
Like Jeffrey’s position paper, mine had to be short (although I had 500 more words that he did), and that doesn’t leave you much room to be subtle or to make nuanced, carefully constructed arguments. So I kind of feel about it the way Flavia feels about her SAA abstract, as if it’s a RANDOM STRING OF NOUNS! Seriously, over in Dame Eleanor Hull’s writing group this week, I had this to say about it:
[It's] kind of stupid. It’s supposed to be a short “position paper” and the position I took was, “We need more of this thing we’re already doing! Because there’s not enough of it! Even though some of you might think there’s lots of it!” And then I added, “because of this trendy new way of thinking about these things!” Yeah, dumb. Sigh.
But I suppose if my dumb piece gets people’s knickers all in a twist and makes them shake their fist and me and shout, “But we’re already doing that! And how is your trendy way of talking about it any different from what we’ve been doing in any practical way?!” then I guess it fulfills the editors’ call for something that “provokes” — although I’m not sure they meant “provoke” as a synonym for “annoy.”
Anyway, I’m writing this in part because I’m in sympathy with Flavia and Jeffrey right now, but also because, like Flavia, I need to remember that this is often how my students feel about their writing, although probably with even higher levels of anxiety about how “dumb” what they’ve done is. Between Flavia’s post and my own thinking about this “dumb” position paper, I’ve been reminded that I need to be gentler with my students and their writing, but also more open about how it *is* a struggle, especially when you’re writing about something difficult or trying on ideas that are new to you, and that the struggle is part of the process (if you’re doing it right and not coasting), one that I go through as well, even at my stage. I also should remember that it can take me all semester to write 2500 freakin’ words (at least 2500 *good* ones).
The spouse of a friend of mine is blogging their family’s short-term ex-pat life in London (it’s a lovely new blog — check it out!), and in only her second post, she admits that she’s been doing a bit of “slow blogging.” No, really, it’s a thing, she says, because it has a manifesto. And we all know that if something has a manifesto, then it must be real! Well, I guess then that slow blogging is what I’ve been doing lately, and I’ve been so slow about it that even when I get linked by IHE (bless their hearts for keeping me in their RSS feed), as I did with the last post, no one’s really paying attention. So, I think that’s a sign that I must either speed things up a bit or else close up shop. I hate to go out with a whimper, so I’ll at least try to do some solid posts before that happens (*if* that happens). So I hope you’ll hear from me a little bit more in the meantime.
So I just got my merit scores for last year and a couple of numbers really surprised me. I thought I had a shitty teaching year (I was way too afraid to even look at my evaluations!) but somehow I got a perfect score in teaching. Huh. Go figure.
Meanwhile, in a year that I thought was one of my most productive since my book came out, I got the lowest score I’ve ever received for professional activity. Now, part of it is that this particular merit committee was using really odd numbers. They were like that one weird professor who gives A- - and B+ + grades. And after looking at the other scores with the chair (yeah, we’re contractually guaranteed to be able to see our scores in context — transparency and all that) I think my score was the A- -. Or maybe it was the B+ +. So, OK, not a bad grade — as we constantly tell our students who bitch about A- and B+ grades! It was just contextually weird, given the context of my scores in other years.
But also — and more germane to the title of this post — I suspect (though I don’t know for sure, so I’m really just musing here) that my work this past year wasn’t valued as highly as work in other years, because it consisted mostly of editions of literature (a forthcoming, *major* anthology of the genre most of my scholarship is in, an anthology that has taken a *buttload* of work and is actually kind of groundbreaking — but I didn’t really explain that in my professional activity report and need to do so next year) and invited articles that are part synthesis, part original work for those kinds of guides/companions that we all find useful from time to time, and for special topics issues on the state of the field in my corner of medieval literary studies.
Here’s the thing: I think that the kind of work I did is a measure of my status in the field (or especially, my subfield of it) — the invitations were not from friends, largely, but from people who know my work, or people who have become professional friends because of my work. I also think that such work should be valued more broadly in the profession in general, not only because it takes just as much time, energy, talent, and expertise as the original research, but also because it’s freaking useful work. (And really, this post is directed at the profession in general, not at my colleagues in particular, because they’re just aping a norm that starts at the R1s and trickles down to us — a problem in and of itself, but one that needs to be addressed in a separate post.) Once the anthology gets into classrooms (and I think it will), it’s going to have more impact on how and what people teach and study in that genre than my original book ever will. There are texts in that anthology that have never been in a student edition before. It may even have an impact on the wider field, because, for the first time, it presents all of these texts in modernized spelling. And that’s going to be controversial, too. While that may not be an original argument, exactly, it’s an original approach with potential meaning for the future of the field and its object(s) of study, especially at the undergraduate level. And where do future scholars and readers of our fields come from if not from undergraduates who then decided they want to do and learn more?
Meanwhile, the article on my subfield for the companion/guide thingy is going into a multi-volume companion to all of British literature, not just one for medievalists. So it, too, has the potential to reach a much wider audience than my specialized book and articles on my area of medieval lit. And who doesn’t consult those kind of guides when they have to teach a survey or in a field that isn’t their own (which is more and more the case at universities like mine)? And *I’m* the one they picked to write the *one* chapter on how we understand my subfield today, a chapter that could potentially reach all sorts of people who sometimes have to encounter the texts of my subfield and then go and say stupid, out of date things about them because the last time they studied them deeply (if at all) was in graduate school before a bunch of ground-breaking, game-changing discoveries and arguments were made. But with my chapter, maybe they won’t say such stupid things! In fact, I kind of gently directed my chapter at those folks. (I’m being pretty oblique here, but I hear and read utterly out-of-date, totally over-turned conceptions about the genre I specialize in all the freakin’ time, and from other medievalists as often as not. Don’t even get me started on the early modernists.)
So, I’m not here to bitch to the world wide web of readers about my particular score. It’s materially meaningless, given that we don’t currently have merit raises. Rather, I want us all to consider the value of a greater swath of professional activity. Original research is highly valuable — that’s where our own expertise comes from and it’s where new knowledge and new understanding is generated — but so is the dissemination of that knowledge and expertise in other ways, to wider audiences. Keeping these kind of intellectual products in a rigid hierarchy — a Great Chain of Being of professional activity – is to misunderstand the complex ecosystem of knowledge and study to which they contribute.