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: (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)?

Mid-career rut

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?

What a semester!

I haven’t been blogging as much as I intended to this semester, largely because this has been an insanely busy semester — busier than most. (I do have a few posts brewing, including one on whether tenure robs you of the incentive to work hard.)  Some things you know about — buying a new house, getting married — but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  So, in a nutshell — or in bullet-point lists, actually  — here is what my semester, which is actually still not over, has looked like:


  • Having changed my English medieval lit class so that it alternates, on a three-year basis, between early medieval (Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic — ASNaC for short), late medieval (after the Norman conquest), and a topic across the period, I taught the ASNaC version for the first time.  This included teaching many texts — all of the Celtic and Norse stuff — for the very first time as well as *reading* much of them for the first time.  Here’s some advice based on my experience:  do not assign a 250-page Old Norse saga you’ve read only in excerpt, or at least don’t schedule it for the two weeks before Thanksgiving.
  • I also changed the assignment sequence in my Old English class — a class I still feel I do not know how to teach! argh! — so that I was doing a lot of fresh work in that course, too. It didn’t take much time for me to do said work, but it caused morale/attitude problems with the students.  That’s something else I want to blog about in more detail later.
  • To review: I had two mostly new preps this semester (my own damn fault). I am an idiot. On the bright side, the complicated assignment sequence I did in the medieval lit class seemed to have worked well.  More on that later, too.
  • In service-related news, I served on the personnel committee of another department because they’re too small to field a full committee from their own faculty.  Said DPC had to vote on a fifth year renewal, a promotion to full, and two tenure cases, one of which was hugely contentious (and ugly — really, really ugly) and involved meeting after meeting after meeting.  I counted up the hours of meetings:  twenty freakin’ four!
  • Oh, and I also got into an ugly fight with a colleague in my department — so ugly that it made me cry in a professional situation, something I haven’t done in about 20 years.
  • In more positive news, I’ve got two contracted professional publications in progress (one a companion-to article, the other an anthology of texts which I’m co-editing). Alas, though, I feel constantly behind on them, despite working diligently on them.  And I’m waaaaayyyyy behind on the review essay that I’m supposed to have written by the end of this month — I haven’t even finished the books. Ack!
  • Oh, I also had to deal with two minor academic dishonesty issues this semester. See Flavia’s post on the topic for a reflection of how I feel and think about these things. (Also, read the comments for SEK’s hilarious story.  I so want to be able to quote that ad infinitum.)
  • And this was all in my first semester back from sabbatical.  Hey, welcome back, Virago!


  • At the very beginning of this semester, I had minor, out-patient surgery. Everything’s fine and my prognosis is excellent.  But still, it took up a lot of time, including a couple hours of pre-surgery testing and medical history recording a few days before and then all day for the surgery and a weekend to recover. It was also the first time I had real surgery or general anesthesia.  (And boy, anesthesia is *weird*!)
  • I crazily flew off to Amsterdam for 4 days over our long-weekend Fall Break for a girl’s weekend with an old friend.  Here’s proof:

    This should totally be a postcard that says "Welcome to Amsterdam."

  • Got married. As you know.
  • Bought a house. We closed on it yesterday and get possession on Monday. For some reason, in this state (or it may just be this county), a seller can stay in the house after closing, free of charge. The standard time is 30 freakin’ days, but we negotiated down to five. We really wanted  immediate possession, but we compromised. Anyway, now we own two houses — crazy! (Well, Bullock does. Technically I’m a renter in the current one.) The plan is to remain in this one while we do some remodeling in the new one, and to use the new one to declutter this one in order to make it look good when we list it.  We’ll likely move in February.

I am exhausted!  And next semester isn’t likely to be any less crazy.  We’ll be moving, the Pastry Pirate is coming to visit (if her car, which has been in storage while she’s been “on the ice” in Antarctica, manages to start), and I’ll be going back to a three-course load.  (I know, many of you do four, and that is definitely more work. I am privileged to have a 2/3 load.  But three is still an adjustment for me, since it’s been five years since I’ve done that.)  I’ve scheduled my classes for four days a week, which I’ve never done before, because I thought that might be less exhausting than three in one day.  We’ll see.  And, of course, I’m changing things in all three classes (although mostly just assignments, not readings).  Oh, and just two days ago, I agreed to do an advanced Old English independent study with one of the students who apparently actually *likes* Old English.  I was so happy that some good has come out of that class that I agreed. I did warn him, though, the emphasis may be on *independent*. At least I know he’s a student who can handle that — he’s smart and super-competent. Plus, he’s a really nice guy; I love working with nice people.  In professional news, I’m going to MLA, where I’m participating in a pre-conference digital humanities workshop (so excited about that!).  And also, in late March, I’ll be giving an invited talk (my first!) and a seminar at a flagship university in another state, and I’m crazy nervous about it. The work I’m presenting/workshopping in each case is so in-progress that I’m not even sure what titles to give it and I need to do that soon.

So, just to give you a heads up, if this blog goes totally silent in April, it may be because I’m dead from exhaustion.

Three weeks in…

…and already I feel so very, very tired.  But happy.  I’m glad to be back in the thick of things.

Today’s supposed to be a writing day, but I had an early morning meeting, followed by an hour and a half spent at a health care facility getting poked and prodded and giving the world’s longest personal health history (long story — may blog about it later), and then I called my sister to tell her some news, and now I’m too tired to do the hard writing.  So I shall write this blog post and then do some grading and service-related work and that will do very nicely today, since I actually already met my week’s writing goal anyway. So there!  (Woah, I just turned into Dr. Crazy there — I *never* use the verb “shall.”)

Anywho, I’m now three weeks into my first semester back from sabbatical and I have to say: I’m actually happier than I was during sabbatical.  Tired, but happy.  Seriously, I do not do well mentally in the slough of despond that is the isolation of sabbatical (or dissertation fellowship or whatever), at least not when it’s a whole year long and I don’t have a major project to *finish*. Don’t get me wrong — I got a lot accomplished over sabbatical.  I did the major chunk of the initial research for the still-inchoate second book (or whatever — it might not turn out to be a book, exactly, but it’s big) I’ve started; I edited most of my half of a co-edited anthology of primary texts and co-wrote its introduction; I drafted 15 pages of an article (ideally one I should’ve finished this past year, but which I’ve put off until this year and next summer to finish); and I read three books in the field of historical English linguistics to help make me a better teacher of Old and Middle English linguistics courses, and maybe more prepared to teach History of the English Language if we never get a line to replace our retired historical linguist after the VAP line we currently have runs out. Oh, and I also did a lot of preparatory reading for the brand new early medieval lit class I designed because I had never previously read all of The Tain or Grettir’s Saga, etc.  I did not get as far in my plan to re-read my undergraduate classical-to-renaissance great books syllabus (in prep for *another* new class next year), but I did at least re-read The Iliad, the Homeric hymns, and all of Sappho’s poetry.

So, I got stuff done.  But.  Even so, I felt like sabbatical kind of sucked. I think I might have done all of those things more efficiently with just a semester off.  Or maybe not — it did take me almost all of the first semester to remember how to organize my own time, and planning and preparing for the six-week research trip to England took a lot of time.  But still, I’m a lot happier with a lot of different tasks on my plate.  And I’m even making more headway on a couple of other writing tasks than I was making on them over sabbatical. (Good thing, too, since they’re due in November and December — though I can get, and will probably need, an extension on the November deadline.)  Check out the meters I added over in the sidebar of my homepage.  The first one is the one I’m working on now, so expect it to grow this semester more than the other one does.  The second one is the one I made headway on over sabbatical, but then stalled out on; however, as it’s related to a talk I’m giving in the spring, it might start to grow a little, too.  I also joined ADM’s and Notorious’s awesome bloggy writing group to help spur me to keep up the progress on number 1.

I think that I’m just a lot happier with multiple tasks going on at once, and with the adrenaline that juggling gives me. As tired as it makes me, it works for me better than the quiet contemplation of a year of reading and research.  However, *perhaps* if I’d had a discrete (but large) project to *finish*, I would’ve felt better about sabbatical  My second dissertation fellowship year was a *hell* of a lot more productive and satisfying than the first, but that’s because I had the dissertation all mapped out and just need to write the damn thing down.  I had a writing group of sorts, then, too, with the screenwriter across the courtyard from me. (Have I never told you that I spent my grad years in Melrose Place?  I kind of did — different address and no pool, but movie industry “aspiring types” and plenty of drama.  Beside the screenwriter across the courtyard and the costumer downstairs, one of my neighbors was this actress.) Anyway, the screenwriter guy decided that one page of my dissertation was about ten pages of his screenplays, and so we’d each try to write at least that much every day.  Some days I’d come out with ten pages (really!) and he’d be all like, “No way! I’d have to write a whole script to keep up!”  Hells yeah!

So, in short, I like structure, and sabbatical didn’t give me any.  I tried to *make* some for myself, but it never felt right.

Sabbatical was really good for me in some ways, though: in addition to the work I did get done, and which I couldn’t do during the school year (e.g., do manuscript research in the UK), the break from teaching alone did wonders for my morale and the teaching part of my job.  And it gave me a clear break from being grad director, since I wasn’t around for students to say, “I know this isn’t your job any more, but could you just…”  And man, was I burnt out from being grad director!  Teaching, too, though I think that may have been colored a lot by being grad director.  I like my professional distance and compartmentalization, and as grad director (which also means instructor of the intro to research course for the first year grad students), I saw some students way more than I might have liked — in class, in my office, in their exams.  Too much!  And that’s true of the easy students as well as the needy ones.  As the person teaching Old and Middle English, which a buttload of grad students take (both courses) to satisfy various language-related requirements, I still see a lot of the grad students, but outside of the bounds of the course, they are not my problem any more.  And since this is the first I’m meeting them, I also don’t have any history with them.  Clean slates are *awesome*.

But if I had to do it all over again — or in ideal circumstances, anyway — I might have waited to take sabbatical when I had a clearer long project to finish, some more concrete, anyway, and I might have taken only a semester.  Oh well, something to keep in mind in another seven years, if they haven’t done away with sabbaticals altogether.

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?

>Hacking sabbatical

>I didn’t really think of my sabbatical starting until the Fall term started up, in part because I’d had such a busy summer of professional activities that would have happened whether I was on sabbatical or not. So, for me, sabbatical started August 23. And it took me the last two months to finally figure out how to manage my time and to get into a groove. Thank dog, then, that I took the whole year, despite the reduction in salary.

My problems in getting started were threefold: 1) the major project I’m working on is in its very amorphous beginning stages and the immediate tasks at hand were and remain super dull and tedious; 2) I’d forgotten how to manage so much unscheduled time; and 3) ZOMG! The Intertubes! Let me explain point 1 and then I’ll talk about how I harnessed technology (my university’s admins love to throw around phrases like that) to deal with points 2 & 3 and at least ameliorate the issues in point 1, and also how I actually added to my goals for sabbatical to paradoxically make it more likely that I’ll complete those goals.

Even before we get to the issues with my major project, there was another task I had to take care of by a September 15th deadline, and that was the editing of a handful of medieval texts for an inclusion in a student anthology, along with writing the introductions to them. I learn a lot from such projects, and they’re one of the most important things we do as scholars, I think, even though at most places they don’t count as much as original peer-reviewed research, and so I’m happy to do such projects in that sense. But, ZOMG!, it is tedious work. And I think that tedium got me off to a bad start and in bad habits. I’d edit a stanza of text and then check Facebook. Then I’d edit another stanza and play 5 games of Mah Jong. Then I’d edit another stanza and read blogs. And so on. I let it drag out until mere days before the deadline, so poof! there went a month of sabbatical.

The thing was, I was totally using that editing job as a way to procrastinate on my own research. I could have been doing both all that time, but I didn’t. But finally I got that job out of the way and it was time to move on to my own research — no more excuses. But the first problem with this project is that it’s so early in its development, it’s hard to know what it needs and where I should be going in terms of textual, historical, and theoretical research and reading. I’m not even sure what the size of the project is; though I proposed it as a book project in my sabbatical application, I’m starting to think it might be a Speculum-length article. Or maybe a couple of articles of shorter length. And the working thesis/argument I have now may totally change as I continue to do the primary text research. God knows that happened on my first book, which started as a project on class and economics and a specific body of literary texts and morphed into a project on gender and those texts. And before that, I just wanted to write on those texts because there hadn’t been any book-length works on them in a long while and I thought I had interesting, newish ways of looking at them. That’s also kind of how this project started: I kind of fell into finding my primary material, realized it was both understudied and yet potentially significant, and then started thinking about it more. But that makes it harder to know where to go with the stuff because you’re not entering a widely populated critical conversation; instead, you’ve got to find ways to introduce it into the conversation by relating it to conversations already going on. But the question is, which ones? In practical terms, that means: which existing scholarship is going to help me figure out what’s going on here? What should I be reading to help me think through this?

Meanwhile, the one task I know I need to do — find and catalog for myself all the instances of the literary phenomenon I’m working on — is a slow and tedious one. See, the stuff I’m working on is what I think of as an obscure subgenre of 15th and 16th century poetry, and so I have to find it by combing through reference works like the various editions of Index of Middle English Verse. I go through a reference work like that one entry after another, looking for texts that might be the kind I’m trying to study and define and then entering them into a Word file I made (so I can search it electronically). And then I’ve got to track down the available editions of these poems (which sometimes means getting my hands on articles in obscure 19th century German journals!); and after that, in the Spring, I’m going to look at the manuscripts of texts without editions or whose editions don’t tell me enough about the manuscript contexts (and that part means another longish trip to England – so yeah!). But right now, I’m in the most boring stage. I’m only up to M in the New Index of Middle English.

As you can imagine, that work is about as interesting as reading a phone book, and so it’s also a task prone to procrastination and distraction. In fact, I really should have done it a little bit at a time last year when I was teaching, because it’s totally the kind of task you can work into a busy teaching year with just a few minutes a day. But I am teh lame and did not do that. And now I have to Get. It. Done so I can effectively use sabbatical time for that trip to the manuscript libraries in the UK and here in the US, too, especially since that’s how I justified the necessity of my sabbatical in my application — I said I needed to do “literary field work.” But trying to do hours of that kind of work — or heck, even one hour — at a time is going to create diminishing returns on productivity, because the more mind-numbingly bored I become, the more mistakes I’ll make and the more I’ll procrastinate with those games and Facebook and so on. And furthermore, I can’t spend my whole sabbatical doing work that dull. I’ll go insane.

So. What to do? Well, here’s how I “hacked” sabbatical to help me make better use of my time and be more productive, both in terms of what this longer-term project needs to get off the ground this year and also in terms of having something to show for my time next year. As I said above, I actually added some additional goals to my sabbatical besides this maybe-a-book project (which is the only thing I mentioned in my application for sabbatical). I had already planned to finally get to writing an article I’ve had brewing for a couple of years. It has its problems and roadblocks, too, but it’s much further along than the nascent book project, so at least it has some shape. I also took on another editorial job, related to that one I mentioned above. I know, I know — more tedious work. However, I think I’ve figured out how to deal with that, too, which I’ll get to in minute. I also accepted an invitation to write a chapter in a forthcoming multi-volume guide/companion/introduction to British literature on the same genre of text as the texts I’m editing and have edited and that the article project is on, so those projects are all interrelated and will aid one another. Plus, along with editing texts for either scholarly or student editions, I think the scholarly guides to literature are another really important feature of what we do in the profession. (So next time some fool is dismissing scholarly research as something no one reads, mention a Norton Critical Edition or a Cambridge Companion to said fool and ask him where he thinks such works come from. But I digress.) Those are the projects that will go under my “professional activity” section of next year’s annual merit report. But I’m also doing things for teaching, for pleasure, and for well being — including, for instance: re-reading a bunch of the classical, medieval, and renaissance texts from my undergrad great books core curriculum; reading lots of detective fiction; trying to get back in shape; and reading introductions to English morphology, phonology, and syntax, to make me a better teacher of Old and Middle English — and these are all part of my daily schedule.

Now, it might seem like I’m being over-ambitious, but here’s why I think more tasks will help me. Remember how boring I said some of my work is? Well now, if I get bored with one task, instead of playing Mah Jong or reading Huffington Post, I just switch tasks. If I get stuck on a problem in my article project, instead of checking Facebook, I switch tasks. If I’m frustrated with all of my own projects, I can read The Illiad or about the Northern Cities Vowel shift and still feel professionally engaged in some way, but give my brain a rest. And if I’m sick of all the brain work, I get on the tread mill or on my bike, or I chase Pippi around the yard. (She doesn’t play fetch; she plays keep away.)

And here’s the hacking part. I’ve incorporated two apps to help me achieve these things. The first one is an iPhone app called Daily Deeds. I’m pretty sure I learned about this from ProfHacker, so I’ll give them general credit. Anyway, it’s a simple little program that lets you enter a list of tasks that you want to accomplish daily (or at least in a recurring way). And if you accomplish said task, you check it off. You can then e-mail yourself reports to show you how much you’re doing something each month. In my own version, I’ve entered a whole bunch of tasks and sub-tasks related to all of the above (so, for instance, I have an entry that says “catalog stuff from the NIMEV,” another that says “read some Classical/Med/Ren lit,” another that says “read some criticism and take notes” (so it serves for *all* my projects), and one that says “run, ride bike, or walk Pippi” (to account for all physical activity in a low-pressure way, just to help myself make it a daily routine, no matter how hardcore or not). I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to check something off! And it doesn’t matter how short a time I spend on something — if I do it, I get to check it off. This ‘carrot,’ combined with allowing myself to switch tasks the moment I get bored or frustrated, means I now — finally — spend at least 6 hours a day actually *working*.

And there’s the other tech tool that has helped me do that. I don’t have the best willpower when it comes to things like Facebook or blogs or other online distractions, but I need the web for some of the work I’m doing (using the MED and OED, for instance), so I can’t use Freedom and turn off the internet entirely. So instead, I use the Leechblock extension for the Firefox browser, which allows me to select the sites to block and the times to block them. So now, from 9am to 5pm each weekday, I cannot access Facebook, HuffPo, the real estate sites around here, Blogger or WordPress blogs, or all the other things I routinely tend to want to distract myself with…”just for minute,” I’ll say…and which end up sucking hours of my time each week. And often, I move downstairs with one of the books I’m reading by about 4pm, so I’m away from the computer when I’m allowed back on the sites.

So this is how I’m “hacking” sabbatical: counter-intuitively adding more tasks to make more progress on each of them; switching tasks often; rewarding myself for activity on tasks by chalking up check marks on Daily Deeds; blocking myself from my biggest online time-wasters; and now, telling you all about it so that I stick to it! Let’s see if it continues to work.

>The best professional moments of 2009

>Since my last post had a little bit of the professorial gripe to it, and was also ridiculously long, I thought I’d counter that with a briefer post on what made me happy in my professional life in 2009. It’s still the first week of 2010, so I’m still allowed to do a 2009 retrospective, right?

In our annual reviews, we have to categorize all the work we’ve done in the previous academic/fiscal year (July 1 to June 30) in the three usual categories of what professors do all day: teaching, research, and service. So I thought I’d give you my three most gratifying moments or element of 2009 in the same three categories.

Service is technically the smallest part of my workload (20%), and I definitely don’t do as much as some people in the department. Most of my service work in 2009 was in three areas: serving on the committee that hired our most recent faculty member; serving on the department personnel committee; and being the director of graduate studies, which entails both service (administrative stuff) and teaching in the form of advising, and always poses problems for me when I’m trying to decide what part of my annual report to put its activities on. But this is my blog, so I’m counting my most gratifying moment as grad director in the service category. This year the associate chair proposed the idea to me of assigning one or two outstanding graduate student teachers to their own sophomore level literature course and we decided to do this through a competitive application process. So I was charged with drafting the application with the rest of the graduate committee. With their input, I put together an application that I think will not only give us a good way of assessing the proposed courses and the individual student’s potential for success with it, but that will also teach all of the students something about course design, teaching portfolios, and job applications (that was the model) and give them materials to use if they apply for community college jobs after the MA. So I was pleased with the end product. And most gratifying of all, so was the rest of the faculty, including the composition faculty, who were worried that it would seem like we were “rewarding” students with a literature class over composition. In other words, I seem to have pleased everyone. Yay me!

My most gratifying “moment” in my research was actually, technically, a series of moments, but I’m still counting it as one: that is, the three very positive reviews that my book received in 2009. Even more gratifying was the fact that they were by scholars in three slightly different fields of late medieval literature: one works largely on gender and vernacular devotional literature (including the genre that’s the subject of my book, but not exclusively); one works on literature and the social class that’s part of the subject of my book; and the last one works specifically in the genre that was the subject of my study. Once again, I seemed to have pleased everyone — or a range of someones, anyway.

I’ve actually saved the best for last, the most gratifying moment in my teaching. Oh sure, great reviews of one’s book are *extremely* gratifying, but I’m pretty sure that over the course of my career I’ll have more students than readers of my scholarship, so I’m going to rank teaching as the place where I could potentially have the most impact on the world, even though teaching and research are weighted the same in my workload – 40% each. The most gratifying moment in teaching was a small one, but it meant a great deal to me. Last spring I taught the “gateway” intro to literary study course for the major, which allows me to stretch myself and teach all sorts of cool texts beyond the medieval period, and I always make a point in such courses of including one or two relatively recent American works, or else my tendency might otherwise be to stick to British literature, medieval to Victorian. This year I ended the course with short stories, capped off with Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” as it originally appeared in The New Yorker. I’d never taught it or been taught it; I just decided to do it. We’d been talking a lot in class about the ways in which modern and post-modern fiction writers convey subjective points of view through narrative form, diction, imagery, and so forth, and that’s largely what we did with this story. And I’d also been showing clips of movie adaptations of a lot of the texts I taught to talk about film as interpretation, and to show the formal changes necessary, as a way of drawing attention to the formal elements of writing. Anyway, I did this with “Brokeback,” of course, showing the heartbreaking scene of Ennis visiting Jack’s parents and finding his own shirt hidden inside Jack’s in the closet. In doing so I think I indirectly steered us towards a discussion of the depiction of love rather than sex, of emotion rather than sexual desire. I didn’t plan it very consciously this way, but I think that’s what made the discussion so good. But it wasn’t the discussion that day that was so gratifying — though it was good and blissfully free of awkwardness. The moment came after class. One of my best students, who had taken a number of courses with me, came up to me and said that she didn’t expect to like “Brokeback Mountain,” and in fact, had expected to be offended by it because it conflicted with the way she was raised and with her religious beliefs. I was afraid that what was coming wasn’t a “but” or “however,” and braced myself, but I should have known better since this was a truly thoughtful and empathetic student. And indeed, she did say “but.” She said that and more, that despite what she expected, she found herself deeply and powerfully moved by the story. It’s really a compliment more to Annie Proulx than to me, but the student did thank me specifically for assigning the story and forcing her out of her comfort zone. I’m not really sure why this moment meant so much to me. Perhaps because it came from one of my “fans” who was simply telling me that she was still learning from me, even when it wasn’t medieval literature. Or maybe because at its heart, I think that’s what the value of a liberal arts college or university education in the traditional classroom is about: it’s about the encounter with others.

So what were your most gratifying moments of 2009?

>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.

>Post-tenure blues. Ennui. Depression. Melancholy. Or something like that

>This is what it’s like after tenure for some of us.

And these are the reasons (or collectively, the single reason) I haven’t been blogging this semester. See, it’s like this: I have no enthusiasm for anything I do right now, whether research, teaching, service, or blogging. I keep putting things off and then feeling them hang over my head. And what do I do instead? I Facebook. Why? Some might say it’s for the instant gratification, and they’re probably right. But it’s also for the sheer mindless, time-wasting, numbness-inducing state it puts me in. Time slips away effortlessly when I piddle around on FB (or, my second favorite online place to be, the realtor in Neighboring State that lists all the 10+ acre estates and is searchable by county). And then, after the time has slipped away, I berate myself and work at a frantic pace to get a half-assed job done of my grading or reading or whatever. Or I work all weekend to punish myself, which is particularly stupid, because if I had a better handle on my time, I’d have weekends off for the first time in forever this semester, and I’d be able to enjoy my life and the unexpectedly large raise that came with tenure because of a newly negotiated contract that raised the tenure bumps. And have I mentioned that I haven’t run since November? And that I’ve gained 20 pounds as a result?

I’ve rarely been in a state this bad for this long. It has pretty much lasted the entire semester (perhaps minus the first month and a half, when I had the euphoria of wining and dining job candidates to sustain me). I occassionaly experience brief bouts of this kind of inertia in my dissertating years, but not since having become a professor. I’m sure it doesn’t help that our university is an annoyingly wacko place these days, but really, I think I’d be going through this just about anywhere.

You see, we push and push and push to reach certain goals, tenure being just about the biggest of them, but after tenure, the goals are less clear. There’s a sense of deflation. All of a sudden you realize your job has some of the qualities of routine that any other job has. And it’s — gasp! — a job. This is especially true if, like me, you teach a certain range of courses over and over and over. By now you’ve got them down, a little too down, and they start to feel stale.

Some smart people arrange for sabbatical for the year after they’re tenured, and if I were on sabbatical I might find some rejuvenation. I’d actually like to work on my research, but I’ve been so poorly managing my time, that of course it’s the thing that has really fallen by the wayside. But I went up for tenure a year early, and I’m also putting off sabbatical for yet another year because of a wonderful teaching opportunity that I’m seizing with a colleague in theater. And maybe doing that ununusual team-taught course will energize both my teaching and my research, since seeing someone else do it half the time will give me ideas and a fresh insight into the subject matter, which also happens to be an area part of my research interests are in.

None of this is to say that the life of a professor is hard. But there’s a burden that’s unique and peculiar to it and that can lead to the kind of inertia I’m talking about. Right now it’s going to take every atom of will power in my body to make it through the semester (and to write my Kzoo paper — ack!), and then it will take additional will to start my work up again in the summer (thank god there’s a 10 day vacation — not research! — trip to the UK in a little over a month). I’ll get there. Writing this helped.

In the meantime, if you’ve ever been in such a funk, especially as a faculty member, what got you out of it? How did you rejuvenate interest in your research and teaching?

>Research/theory question for the medievalists and early modernists

>ETA: Maybe this *isn’t* just for the early modernists! All suggestions welcome!

I’m trying to work out something I’ve been thinking about for awhile, and that I presented a paper about at last year’s Kalamazoo (so if you know me, and you’re so inclined, you could go look up the specifics, since the rest of this post is likely to be vague). I’m starting to be convinced that a particular text, conventionally regarded as having a medieval origin, is actually an imitation of things medieval. I don’t think it’s a fake — I’m not talking about something like Chatterton’s forgeries here — but I am starting to think it’s an early-modern anti-Catholic representation and parody of medieval modes of thought, rhetoric, and genre. (When I presented on this at Kalamazoo, I argued for the parodic elements, but I assumed it was coming from within late medieval debates and anxieties. Now I’m not so sure.)

So, my question for you all is this: if you were writing on imitation or parody –whether or not in the context of early modern polemic against the Roman church? — what theories and texts would you look to to help you think through this (medieval, early modern, or contemporary)?

Yeah, I know, completely vague. But maybe you can still help.