Three things

I am on sabbatical again. That means, for the third time in my career I have an extended period of time in which I am in completely in charge of my own time, which also means that for the third time in my career a vast abyss in space and time has open up in front of me, completely terrifying me.  (The first two times being my dissertation fellowship period and the first time I was on sabbatical). But that’s not the three things of my title. I will get to that. (Side note: The Third Abyss would make a great band title. Punk? Metal? Norwegian Death Metal? Anywho…)

Everyone keeps asking me how sabbatical is going (after less than a month!) and I’m all like: https://giphy.com/embed/Qz8sdl0fslT5S (Darn, that gif showed up itself in the editor. Oh well. Click on the URL — it’s worth it, I swear!)

Last time I was on sabbatical, I had a kind of concrete list of stuff to do, because I spent it tracking down every instance I could of a particular variety of Middle English verse that I was interested in. Originally I had wanted that research to tell me what exactly it was going to turn into during that first sabbatical, but mostly all of my time was taken up with the “data gathering.” And since gathering that “data” meant going to manuscript libraries all over the place, that’s mostly what my sabbatical consisted of: making lists of possible “verses of interest” (groan…I read too much detective fiction and like puns too much), making plans to go see them, traveling to see them,  then transcribing a ton of manuscript pages, and then organizing what I found.

It took a long time for that bunch of information to start to turn into something interesting, so here I am seven years later looking at forming that raw material into my second book. Eek! Do I even remember how to write a book? My last one came out ten years ago! And its genesis was *twenty* years ago — gulp! (Duuude, I am old.) A book that’s just an idea is such an amorphous thing, a big, gaping hole that I need to fill. *Shudder*

I’ve got another project I have to finish this summer, too, and it’s a little more concrete — the edition of the York Corpus Christi Play that I’ve contracted to do and really should have finished last year, but got an extension on because it’s taking me much longer than anticipated. As concrete as it is, it’s somewhat tedious work, and thus causes me to procrastinate and get distracted. So while I should be able to edit a page in an hour, sometimes all I accomplish in a day is editing two pages and ordering shit on Zappos and SocksAddict (because the perfect shoes and socks *will* make your life better, right?).

Clearly, I need some kind of system to a) give a graspable shape to the abyss and b) to focus the work of the edition to get through it more quickly and efficiently. Those are two different problems to solve, so it wasn’t clear that one system was going to solve it, but I finally chanced upon one that I think will help. At least it helped me make a plan.

The system is the “three things” system — Notorious Ph.D. actually talked about it awhile back — hence my post title. I’ve also seen it called “The Rule of 3,” which I like because of its nod to all sorts of aesthetic and mnemonic and cultural rules of threes and thirds. And hey, 3 is a Magic Number, right? Anyway, according to the productivity gurus who invented or use this system, you’re supposed to start with the day and make a to-do list of three things to accomplish that day, and *then* move to bigger units of weeks and months and years. While I understand the concept of “one day at a time” for some things, that ain’t gonna work for a book project and a sabbatical. So, instead, like Notorious, I started with the time left on my sabbatical (which technically started in mid-May, but I took some time to ease into things), which is from now until mid-August, 2018.

So here are my “three things” for sabbatical:

  1. Finish the edition of the York Corpus Christi Play.
  2. Revise a big 45-minute presentation that I gave — and also workshopped elsewhere — into an article and the first chapter of my new book project.
  3. Do further research for and draft Chapters 2-5 of the new book project. (OK, I suppose that’s 4 things, but collectively it’s “research and draft the rest of the book project.”)

Then, with that list in mind, I got out academic calendars for the rest of this year (this summer) and next year (fall, spring, and summer), and apportioned weeks to the bigger specific tasks that needed to be done for each of these things. So for Thing 1, I’ve got weeks for editing the remaining play texts themselves, writing introductions, editing contextual material, and so on. I also counted how many pages of editing I have left, and figured out how many pages a day I need to finish to reach these goals. For Thing 2, I still have some details to work out, but there’s a much-neglected action list from earlier this year that I can turn to for that. The work on it is going to be simultaneous with finishing the York edition. For Thing 3, I had 45 weeks of my calendar left, so I gave each of the chapters 9 weeks and saved the final 9 weeks for further research, revising, and writing.

And then I opened up my planner — yes, I use a paper one, in a lovely red leather zippered case, because handwriting helps me remember — and wrote down my daily “three things” for tomorrow, Thursday, and Friday on their respective days in the planner. Tomorrow’s three things are 1) Edit three pages of “The First Trial Before Pilate,” 2) Revisit “action plan” for article project and update it, and 3) Begin reading the secondary material listed on that action plan. And I will continue to make a “three things” daily list from now on, at the beginning of each week (or maybe each Sunday night — a friend and I were at one point using the “Sunday Meeting” method, which I might still use here), and update/revise it as needed as the week progresses.

And yes, there are more than three things I usually have to or want to do in a day — but the “Rule of 3” method is about prioritizing those three things. Everything else goes on the regular “to do” list and gets done after that.

OK, that was all a bit boring, but really, this is just an accountability post. It will be interesting to me to go back to it later at various points in the sabbatical.

How do you manage your time when you have vast, unstructured amounts of it (and I count summer as vast)?

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My position is obvious

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).

Writing a mixed review of a senior scholar’s work

So the other day a review I wrote for an electronic review journal “went live.” It was a review of a new edition of a primary text, and its editor is a very senior scholar whom I have never met, but whose work I know and have often cited. Alas, the review I gave was a somewhat mixed one. Most of the criticism was related to the ways I didn’t think this edition worked as one aimed at students, which editions in this series are supposed to be, and that’s not such a terrible thing, since I essentially said that it’s very erudite and accomplished and scholarly, but it’s aimed a little high. But some of it regarded the strangely contentious approach the editor took in the intro and notes towards certain modes of criticism. I think in a student edition (or any edition, really), one should aim for summation and synthesis, not critique; the place for the latter is in original scholarly work, where you can really mount an argument. Dismissing or criticizing other schools of scholarship in passing in an edition just sounds like a pot-shot, and it closes off potential avenues of inquiry for students, particularly for the more easily-influenced ones. This happened more than once, too, enough that it kind of soured the edition for me, and I devoted some space in the review to this tendency.

Anyway, when I first set out to write this review, I was rather nervous about it, so I dropped an e-mail to a friend to ask his advice. What he said amounted to “What can this person do to you? And what real effect will it have on them?” Well, that was what I needed to hear, because it helped me remember that a bad review won’t have any real material effect on someone who is an established senior scholar, although it might bruise their ego. What’s more, I was in that good-girl, cautious, don’t rock the boat mode, especially as this would be a review that other people would read. I think what filled me with anxiety was this: would I look as contentious as the senior scholar did in the work itself? And would they think I was just taking it personally (because my work could definitely be categorized with the kinds of work the scholar was so critical of)? So I worked hard on that review, on getting it just right — making the fair points I thought I needed to make, balancing them with deserved praise, thinking of what my readers needed to know, and making sure it was all tonally right. I even had Bullock read it for tone and balance (and he made a few excellent suggestions). This wasn’t my first review, by any means, but it’s definitely the one that made me most nervous.

Btw, this level of anxiety about writing reviews is why I could never, ever be a full-time critic in the popular media sense. Gah! I’d have an ulcer within a month!

So what happened?  What happened is that within 24 hours of the review going live, I received multiple e-mails from other scholars in the field praising the review for its usefulness and balance. OK, so one of then was from someone I’ve recently collaborated with and one was from my dissertation director, and I’ve met the others, as well. But still, I think that says I did something right. (Getting an e-mail from my former adviser was a nice bonus, too. It’s been too long since we caught up, and I hadn’t even told him that Bullock and I had gotten married!) And it reminded me of the place and use of reviews in general. It’s not about gate-keeping or territory marking or dismissing approaches we simply don’t like for no reason other than we don’t like them — although lord knows many people write reviews that way. It’s not even directed at the author(s) of whatever you’re reviewing (although you should keep them in mind, of course). It’s about saying to your readers, “Hey, here’s what you’ll get out of this book if you read it or use it in class, and here’s where you or your students might have issues with it, as I did. Use that to judge whether you’ll take the time to read it, whether it’s related to the work you’re doing, or whether you’ll assign it in class.”

That should be a no-brainer, but it’s worth reminding myself (or rather, being reminded) of the best function of reviews. That said, I think I’ll take a nice long break from writing them. Before this particular review, I wrote a double review for a print journal, so I reviewed three books this year. Given how much I angst over the final product, you can guess that that took a lot of my time.

So what about you? Have you written reviews? Do they cause you anxiety at all? What’s your approach to or philosophy of reviews? What do you think their function is? Do you worry about the repercussions of writing a critical or mixed review, for you or for the scholar whose work your reviewing?

Edited to add: I feel like this is a lamer post than I meant to write. There, now I’ve reviewed my own work. 🙂

Just about the only thing making me feel good right now

I am writing.  It’s just a synthesis kind of writing — that “companion to” article I blogged about awhile back (I’m too lazy to find the link) — but it’s writing. And it feels good to be doing it again.  I’ve got a couple little meters in the side bar to measure it, which I’ve mentioned, and now I have a cool sticker, too. Sisyphus made it for our writing group and I’m putting it in the sidebar, too. Go look!

Speaking of writing, gotta get to it!

I need to work. I can’t work. I need to work. I can’t work.

I have a number of things on my plate that are due in the next few months or sooner: that companion piece chapter I mentioned awhile back, a book review essay (on not one, but two books, one of them a collection of essays), the texts I’m re-editing (that is, going over someone else’s editing, doubling checking everything in terms of house style, format, and philosophy) for an anthology for which I am the co-general editor, not to mention class syllabuses and blackboard sites.

But oy!  Ever since I got back from London (where I worked really hard, but I’m still not sure where that damn project is going! ack!), I’ve had the hardest time getting back in gear. I’ve done that fake productivity thing where I clean and organize everything (though that was a legitimate goal for my sabbatical year, at least) but I’ve nearly run out of things to do that with. In my home office, I now have six file cabinets of gorgeously color-coordinated files in jewel tones with neatly typed labels on both the file folders and the hanging folders. And I’ve weeded out my closet and one of my dresser drawers, put my huge collection of t-shirts (now used for dog-walking and hanging around the house) in cubes on a closet shelf, and carted off car-loads of stuff to resale shops and Goodwill. All that’s left are my sock drawer (oh. my. god. what a crazy mess of mostly black socks!) and a big pile of teaching-oriented stuff at the office (where I have promised myself I will not redo the color scheme of the freakin’ files). And even this new blog space is part of the organizing frenzy (as is my recent reorganization of how I do e-mail which is way too deadly dull to explain to you). Oh yeah, and Bullock and I are redoing the main bathroom (damn, should’ve taken before pictures! Well, I’ll take in-progress ones), which necessitates weeding and organizing there, since we’ll have less storage space after.

But I need to do some actual work-related work! I’ve got deadlines and people depending on me! So what’s with me? Got any helpful hints to help kick-start my scholarly self? What says the hive mind?

>Who the heck is the audience for a "companion to" piece??

>I have been tasked with writing a chapter for one of those “companion to” books, one with a *huge* charge: all of medieval British literature. So I’m writing a single chapter on a single very large genre (rather than, say, writing a more focused chapter for a guide to said genre). And worse, its word limit is 7500 words. (OK, that’s 30 double-spaced typescript pages, but still, it’s a big topic!) I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the task before me.

But what most has me puzzled is just who I’m writing *for*. The style guide gives me some help, as it clearly privileges a synthesis of scholarly debates over an encyclopedia-like summary of the primary texts. But then it hilariously says it should be aimed at “undergraduates, graduate students, and scholars.” Um, OK, then who the heck *isn’t* it aimed at? (Well, a “general audience,” I suppose — but I kind of assumed that already.) And though it emphasizes scholarly debates over the primary texts, it also says I shouldn’t assume too much detailed prior knowledge.

*headdesk*

Can my wise and witty readers help me out here? I’ve got some ideas, but I thought maybe I could spark some discussion about what is and isn’t helpful in these guides and companions. In the case of my subject, I see non-specialists in it get all sorts of things wrong because they rely on out of date scholarship (i.e., what they learned in grad school or college years ago), and imho, no subfield of medieval literary studies has changed its mind so much about the basic facts as this particular subfield has. So beginning researchers are entering a minefield of bad sources. I think I should perhaps keep that in mind in my writing, perhaps even make that one of the shaping ideas of it. That would be helpful to anyone turning to it for a crash course in the subject. But I don’t want it to sound like my “how to do research” class for first-year grad students; I don’t want to talk down to people.

And on the other hand, one of the problems I have with many of these “companion to” essays is that they don’t start at the beginning, that they do, in fact, assume too much knowledge, especially for undergrads and beginning grad students, so that reading one is no different than diving into any random point in the scholarship. And I don’t want my chapter to be one of those, either.

Oy, what to do? Any thoughts? And if there are models of what you think makes the perfect “companion to” essay, lead me to it. Of course, different series do it differently, but even without those series, there’s a lot of variety, so any model is useful. And if you were trying to bone up on a field, what would you find most helpful?

(Yeah, I’m being vague, I know. But hey, now this post applies to ALL the fields of literary studies!)

>Where does my research go from here?

>As many of you know (because I’ve been cooing about it on Facebook), my book, published two years ago, now has been reviewed three times and the reviews are all positive. The most recent one, even though it was at times the most critical, was also simultaneously the most enthusiastic. It even made me blush a little bit. It also made me feel pressure to make good on the promise the reviewer seems to think it shows for additional scholarship. As I’ve been joking, I’m now resting on my laurels, but they’re feeling a little prickly.

Like Dr. Crazy, I’m feeling a little like I’m done jumping through hoops, that I don’t have to write a second book. Like her, I didn’t actually have to write a first book for tenure at my institution, but I did feel I needed to write one to be someone in the field, to feel like I was on par with my peers at fancier universities. But now, also like Dr. Crazy, I’m a little more relaxed about my status and professional identity. (Tenure, promotion, a juicy raise, and good reviews will do that for you.) And unlike what seems to be the case at Dr. Crazy’s somewhat similar university, I don’t absolutely have to write another book to make full professor; although most of the literature people in the department have done so, a woman in linguistics went up last year with a series of substantial articles (more the norm in her subfield), which helpfully sets a precedent for the department in general. And at our university, the process for full talks about your contribution to and status in your field, and so I’d use reviews and citations of my older work, as well as new work to help establish that (although my previously achieved laurels alone wouldn’t do it, of course). That said, our administration seems to want to ramp up research expectations (at the same time that they want to increase teaching load, either by classes or enrollment, of course!), so I need to keep an eye on that and not simply assume that all will continue as it has done. Not to mention the fact that the discipline in general keeps expecting more from each generation. (Why do we do that??)

But the thing is, I’m not sure I have it in me. I have ideas, but I’m just not sure they’re book-length ideas. There are two things that I’m spinning my wheels on now. One is on the same genre (in the broadest sense) as the subject of my book, but a different sub-genre from a different part of late medieval/early modern England. That project is definitely only article-length. The other project is related to my previous work only in so far as the socio-economic strata that produced and consumed the texts in question is related to the topic of my first book. It’s in a completely different genre, however, and requires of me new skills and knowledge, so it’s both daunting and exciting, because it will keep me from getting bored and my work from seeming stale, I hope. It also, at first, seemed like a complex and wide-ranging topic and I thought it would become my next book, but now I’m not so sure. It involves a long list of texts, but the texts themselves are not all that complicated, and I’m starting to think that while it will take a lot of time, effort, and research to show their textual and cultural interrelations and significance, it won’t take a lot of pages of writing to do so. I could be wrong — in the process I might find I have a book after all — but it looks now like I have another substantial article, perhaps a Speculum-length article, but not a book.

And after that I got nothing. Or at best, I have some very sketchy little obsessions about things I’ve taught. But see, none of the projects above or the sketchy ideas are really closely related to each other, and so I couldn’t put them together to make a book. So what if the second project above really isn’t a book-length one? It’s possible that I could produce what’s ‘in the queue’ now as articles and maybe a book might germinate out of that. That is, one of those projects might lead to something else that really is a book-length project. Right now, I think that’s my plan: keep working on the ideas I’ve got, following leads and pursuing questions, and keep my eyes open for the bigger picture, if there is one. How I ended up with project number two in the last paragraph, after all, was pretty serendipitous. If not, a series of 4-6 really substantial, well-placed articles would probably get me to full professor, and I’ve had one come out and one submitted since tenure, so I’m already 1/2 or 1/3 of the way there. I think for my sabbatical application I might still pitch that second project as a potential book, especially since I’ll be applying for a whole year, but certainly the manuscript research I need to do will take a year of planning and travelling, anyway, so that will help. But if in the long run it’s better as a longish article, that’s fine with me.

Of course, if my projects don’t turn into books, that means that I take myself out of the running for any moves to more prestigious jobs, but I’m OK with that. First of all, I can’t work at the faster or more demanding pace that such a job would require. Take this morning as an example: all I’ve done is read a chapter of a scholarly work and write this blog post. I’m a slow reader, thinker, and writer. And that’s all I manage when I’m not teaching; I manage less when I am. I already have a 2/2 load here (normally 2/3, but I’m grad director, remember) and so a more prestiguous job wouldn’t mean any teaching reduction. And these days the grass is no longer looking especially greener at either the public or private R1s or SLACs. Add the greater expecations and pressure to that, and they’re really not. And then there’s the two-body problem, which Bullock and I conveniently avoided having by meeting here at Rust Belt — why mess with a good thing?

But staying here at Rust Belt and continuing to publish substantial articles, and doing so in visible places, I think I’d still be contributing to the field, and I’d certainly be contributing to the education of students. I’d still have expertise in the field to share with my students, undergraduate and MA level, and enough visibility and standing that my letters of recommendation for students applying to graduate programs would have substance and weight. And so this is my plan now: keep following the leads and see where they take me, whether that’s to articles or a book or a combination of both.

>Aaaaaaand cut! That’s a wrap!

>Remember that insane to-do list I had for the month of August? The one I posted about here? Well it’s all DONE!

Yup, that’s right — since August 1 I have done the following:

  • Revised an article, doubling its length from 21 pages to 42.
  • Written a short book review (after having read the book on trains and planes during my UK trip)
  • Read a dissertation (defense not yet scheduled, but I’m meeting with the student this week)
  • Corrected proofs of an article
  • Prepared for and participated in grad student orientation activities
  • And met with my colleague in the theater department re: the medieval plays we’ll be producing and teaching in 2010

In addition to that, I have also:

  • Put together my annual merit report
  • Written two letters of recommendation
  • Had minor (very minor) surgery
  • Turned in all the texts I’m putting on reserve for the fall.

The only thing I haven’t done on that original list is read the MA thesis, but only because I haven’t been given a copy of it yet.

Now all I have to do if finish up my syllabuses, which are mostly done, and decide what I’m going to do on the first day of my classes which start next week, and I’ll be completely ready for the semester!

>Medieval Catholics or Christians?

>I’m reading two scholarly books right now that refer to the religious practices and beliefs of the Middle Ages as Catholic, capital C. [ETA: I want to add some information to clarify a few things, partly in response to something a friend ask via e-mail. Both books are dealing only with medieval English culture and literature, so there’s no pressing need to distinguish the Eastern from Western Christian Church in this context. But they do have to sometimes talk about early modern English culture, and one of them is talking about present day manifestations and uses of medieval texts, so the need to distinguish pre- and post-Reformation English Christianities *is* necessary in some way.]

In one case, the book is by a British scholar writing for a British press, and I suspect the practice is standard to both, and reflects all sorts of legacies of the Reformation still alive and well, if muted, in England. In this case, the word signals something like ‘In the Middle Ages, they were Catholic. Now we are proper English Protestants.”

In the other case, the book is published by the Catholic University of America Press, so if it’s house style, it’s of a different ilk, claiming continuity rather than difference. But actually, flipping about, I see this author uses the generic “Christian” more often and seems only to rely on “Catholic” when needing to distinguish it from Reformation denominations and practices.

But I have to say, I’ve always found the use of “Catholic” with a capital C anachronistic for the Middle Ages, especially if all or most of what you’re talking about in a work is the Middle Ages, so both of these examples strike me as wrong in some way. Not hugely, grossly wrong, but wrong in the way a slightly out of tune piano note is wrong — something’s off.

But maybe that’s just me. What are your preferences and practices?

>Things for which I am grateful at the moment

>

  1. I am grateful that I have a draft of my K’zoo paper. It’s 13 pages long and thus needs to be cut, but I’m sure there’s a bit of repetition in there that can easily come out. And 2 pages are a long passage of primary text that I won’t be reading but referring to. I get a whole stack of final papers from both my classes tomorrow, but I can handle editing and grading at the same time.
  2. I am grateful for my friends across the blogosphere and the academic world.