The Anglo-Saxons totally ‘got’ teaching

So I’m teaching Old English again. And I’m doing it in a quasi-flipped way which requires the students to do a lot of intellectual heavy lifting before they come to class, which, for the moment, has some of them freaked out. But I’ll report on how that has actually worked when more of the course has gone by.

In the meantime, I wanted to share a sentence from one of the exercises on Peter Baker’s terrific, interactive web site, “Old English Aerobics.” And I want to share it because I’m kind of fascinated by it and I think it says something about conceptualizing teaching and what teachers do.  First, a bit about this web site: I’ve been using this site in its various incarnations over the years, but it recently got even better when Baker turned his old PDF exercises into interactive online exercises compatible with multiple platforms (and especially nice looking on an iPad). Students (and I!) can now do the exercises and immediately find out if they’re wrong or right, and sometimes, if the answer is “it’s complicated,” a little pop-up gives a further grammatical note. [Note: when I first started teaching the course 10 years ago, he had an older version of these exercises with technology that had its problems even in 2003 — it was very browser-dependent. I think it was made with Java? I don’t know enough about applet programming to know, but I do know it seemed already a little creaky and dated already in 2003. Great concept, but it took the latest version to work out the execution problems.]

Anyway, there was a question and answer recently that gave me such a hard time that I actually had to contact Baker about it. It was an exercise on pronouns and case, and here’s what the sentence looked like:

Se lārēow onfēng þone esne and lǣrde ________ þā Engliscan sprǣce.

For those of you who don’t read Old English, it says:

The teacher took (or received) the young man (or slave or servant) and taught _________ the English language (lit: the English speech).

OK, in Modern English, the blank would be filled with “him” and I think we should analyze that as the indirect object and “the English language” as the direct object. (Although I should say that syntax is *not* my greatest strength.) Here’s how I think of it: Taught what? Taught the English language. Taught it to or with respect to whom? Taught it to him. Are you all with me now?

Let me explain a little more. Bear with me — this is necessary for the point I’m trying to make (although those of you who know Old English can skip this paragraph). Old English had cases — inflectional forms of nouns, pronouns, and adjective that marked their grammatical function in a sentence (subject, object, possession, indirect object, object of a preposition, etc.). We still have this in Modern English pronouns, although (in standard English) we use the same form for both direct and indirect objects (and also for objections of prepositions) and generally call it the “objective form” — me, us, you, him, her, it, them. Old English had a few more distinct forms (although not in first person — those look much like ours) especially in the third person. In the third person, “him” is the dative form of the masculine singular — used for indirect objects and objects of most prepositions, among other uses — and “hine” is the accusative form for masculine singular, used for direct objects.

Still with me? OK, given that little bit of knowledge, would you chose “him” (the form for indirect objects) or “hine” (the form for direct objects) for that blank? I chose “him”….aaaaaand the system told me I was wrong. The correct answer, according to the computer, was “hine.” What? But isn’t “þā Engliscan sprǣce” the direct object?? (It’s feminine accusative singular, for those who care.) Stymied, I contacted Baker, and even he agreed it was odd, but a check of the Bosworth-Toller dictionary showed an example sentence for the verb “lǣran” (to teach) with both the person taught and the content taught in the accusative case. So Old English does it differently and “hine” was indeed the correct answer.

And that got me to thinking: maybe Old English does it *right*. The Modern English possibility of saying “…taught the English language *to* him” sounds a lot like the “banking” model of education, as if we take a student and fill him or her up with the content of what we’re teaching. But the way Old English expresses it, the student receives the action of “to teach” directly, not indirectly. What do we teach? We teach students. And actually, this sense of direct object *is* still there in Modern English in the very sentence I just wrote: we teach students.* We shape students, educate students (draw things *out* of them rather than depositing knowledge into them), and influence students. The *students* are the object of education, in more ways than one. This especially makes sense if/when you realize that “lǣran” also means to exhort, advise, and persuade, which we also often do where students are concerned.

Now, that’s not to say that the content of what we teach isn’t important, whether it’s “þā Engliscan sprǣce” or something else. It is *also* the object of education. Both the student and the content area are our objects. We teach students but we also teach [fill in your specialty]. And our teaching lives, from syllabus design to what we do each day in the classroom to creating assignments and grading them, is often dominated by trying to maintain a balance between those two objects — what we want them to learn (or what the skill or topic requires to be learned) and what the students can reasonably achieve in a given setting.

So, the Anglo-Saxons got it. They understood that the student and the content of what we teach are both our direct objects, and cannot be easily divided.



*The more I think about it, maybe in the sentence “I teach students medieval literature,” both “students” and “medieval literature” are direct objects even in Modern English. But since we don’t have cases, it’s not obvious. Eh, the Old English still got me thinking about this and that’s what matter for the rest of this post.

Requiescat in pace, Seamus Heaney

I just learned that Seamus Heaney died today. I realize that much of Heaney’s acclaim and fame is as a contemporary poetry, as one of the most important Irish poets since W. B. Yeats — and rightfully so — but he’s also near and dear to the medievalist’s heart for his translations of medieval poetry. On that score, he’s most known for his Beowulf, of course, which has allowed us medievalists the rare opportunity to teach a New York Times best-seller. But his Beowulf wasn’t just popular; it was beautiful and as moving for the modern general reader as for the studied medievalist. (Indeed, a friend of mine, who regularly claims she hates poetry, is a fan of his Beowulf, and wrote on Facebook: “I actually said out loud ‘oh no,’ when I heard on NPR this morning. I don’t usually do that for poets.”)  As many of my medievalist friends on Facebook have been noting, in many different ways, he realized that fidelity to the past and attentiveness to the present are not mutually exclusive positions. Here are his words from part of the funeral of Beowulf, which now seem fitting for Heaney himself:

They extolled his heroic nature and exploits
And gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing,
for a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear
and cherish his memory when that moment comes
when he has to be convoyed from his bodily home.

But Beowulf isn’t the only medieval work Heaney translated. More recently, he produced a volume of the work of the late medieval Scottish poet, Robert Henryson. And one of my favorite of his translations has always been his “Pangur Bán,” a 9th century Irish poem that has been translated again and again by many a modern Irish poet. In fact, in his translator’s notes on the poem (which you can read here), Heaney talks about how it’s one of the canonical poems upon which Irish poets try their hand as part of their work to have “learned the trade.” And of course it is, because it’s a poem about writing — and what poet doesn’t like a meta-poem? — and it also might suggest a translator, or at the very least an interpreter, of ancient texts (although the speaker could also be a scribe who copies texts). So any translation of it adds another layer to the textual community across the centuries. Heaney’s translation seems to be acutely aware of that connection across time, that mirroring, mise-en-abyme effect. It’s that meaningful connection with the past that I want my students who study medieval literature to have for themselves, so I have sometimes started off the semester of a medieval lit class with Heaney’s “Pangur Bán.”  Strangely, Heaney says he might not have tried his hand at it if he hadn’t been commissioned to for Poetry magazine, which surprises me a little, because it seems so suited to him. Certainly, now, the final couplet — “Day and night, my own hard work / Solves the cruxes, makes a mark” — seems a fitting epitaph for his work as both a poet and a translator, solving the cruxes of medieval Irish, English, and Scottish poetry and life in Northern Ireland alike, and certainly making a mark.

But enough from me. Let me leave you with “Pangur Bán,” as translated by Seamus Heaney (although I can’t get the formatting right — either I lose the spaces between the stanzas or I lose the way Heaney indented the final two lines of each stanza):

From the ninth-century Irish poem

Pangur Bán and I at work,
Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:
His whole instinct is to hunt,
Mine to free the meaning pent.

More than loud acclaim, I love
Books, silence, thought, my alcove.
Happy for me, Pangur Bán
Child-plays round some mouse’s den.

Truth to tell, just being here,
Housed alone, housed together,
Adds up to its own reward:
Concentration, stealthy art.

Next thing an unwary mouse
Bares his flank: Pangur pounces.
Next thing lines that held and held
Meaning back begin to yield.

All the while, his round bright eye
Fixes on the wall, while I
Focus my less piercing gaze
On the challenge of the page.

With his unsheathed, perfect nails
Pangur springs, exults and kills.
When the longed-for, difficult
Answers come, I too exult.

So it goes. To each his own.
No vying. No vexation.
Taking pleasure, taking pains,
Kindred spirits, veterans.

Day and night, soft purr, soft pad,
Pangur Bán has learned his trade.
Day and night, my own hard work
Solves the cruxes, makes a mark.

Beginnings, endings, and anniversaries

I just learned that a couple of blogs I’ve read more or less since their inceptions are closing up shop — Dame Eleanor Hull (which Dame E began writing in 2007) and A Ianqui in the Village (Ianqui’s been blogging for 10 years!) — and it got me thinking about time, beginnings, endings, and cycles in my life. No, I’m not closing up shop here — not yet anyway — but I am nearing my 8-year blogiversary (on September 5, at least by the old blog’s first post), which makes this blog pretty long in the tooth! My dog and my blog are about the same age, but my dog is middle-aged, while my blog is elderly. (“Blog years” totally should be an idiom, just like “dog years.”)

Meanwhile, in other markers of time, 10 years ago I just finished teaching my first week of classes here at Rust Belt University.  My picture on my campus ID is still the picture from 10 years ago and I looked so damn *happy*. I had a tenure-track job! I was finally grown up! 11 years ago I was about to file my dissertation (which also made me happy, but there’s no picture to go with it). 19 years ago I was just beginning graduate school (my pictured self on that ID also looks pretty happy). In the personal realm and also a subject of happiness: Bullock and I are looking forward to our 10-year relationship anniversary next month. (Yes, we started dating a month after I started working here. We met early after my arrival — my colleague Victoria had a little get-together to introduce everyone. So she kind of set us up without our knowing it. Smart lady.)

On the phone with Virgo Sis the other day, I realized that by my age, my mother was the mother of one college graduate (Virgo Sis — Ms V and Fizzy would follow after), and in three years she’d be a grandmother to Ms V’s first born. Just thinking that I could have a college-age kid freaks me out. The idea that I could theoretically be a grandmother within a few years is just *crazy*. Also, thinking about the fact that my mom and Ms V both had their first kids at age 22 also makes me think “That’s crazy!” Yes, people have kids even younger, but in no way would my 22-year-old self have been ready for it. And the guys I was with then…well, I’ll just point out that they either only just started having kids in the last few years or also still don’t have kids, so clearly they wouldn’t have been ready back then, either. Or else we just all thought we weren’t. But yeah, in a parallel universe, it’s totally possible that I could have grown-up or nearly grown-up kids, and I get that my traditional-aged students sometimes look at me as parent-aged. But then some of them think I’m younger than I am, because I don’t look/dress/act like their parents. (If I didn’t dye my hair to cover the gray, they might think otherwise!) You know how in the media they say things like “40 is the new 30”? In Rust Belt, sometimes 40 is the old 50. Hard lives or growing up too fast can age you, and there’s a lot of that around here. So can the sun, and people seem to still purposely get tan around here (and to still use the expression “to lay out” — meaning to lie purposely in the sun in order to get a tan — which I hadn’t heard since I was a teen). But whether they think I’m closer in age to their parents or them, most of the younger students still grant me my authority.  Most of the non-traditional ones do, too, but a couple have talked to me in their “mom” voices (so far I haven’t gotten any “dad” voices, thank god). I want to say to them, “In academic years, I am *your* elder, thank you very much.” And yet sometimes I feel like I just arrived out of graduate school.

Time seems very much elastic to me these days — wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, as The Doctor might say:

For that reason, I like to remind myself of its passing now and then. It’s good to keep in mind that any of my students applying to a graduate program this year would be doing it 20 years after I did, and the world of those programs (whether academic or professional) is very different. (And yes, I do give them all the warnings.) That gap and difference is only going to get wider. And though it’s fun to mock the Beloit Mindset List (and it deserves that mockery), it is sometimes a helpful reminder that what seems like a “current” pop-culture reference isn’t. (Though just like I was into the 60s in the 80s, the kids today seem to be into the 90s. Well, some of them. And have you noticed that the whole boho, flippy, floral dress with combat boots look is back? Kelly from 90210 and Lisa Loeb would be so pleased!)

I know it’s normal for time to blend together more as you get older, but I can’t help but think it seems intensified for someone like me, who repeats seasonal/academic cycles — the students don’t age! — and who doesn’t have kids of her own to mark the time more obviously. Of course, at least we *have* seasons here (the weather kind, that is) — in LA I didn’t notice time passing, either, but that’s because the weather was always the same! Or that was my theory, anyway. Or maybe I should just blame graduate school. At any rate, while some things do seem emotionally/psychologically/experientially far back in time to me (applying to graduate school, for example), when I put a number to them (20 years ago), that’s when it seems impossible. I think, also, having not really started my career until my 30s (unless you count graduate school, which I do in some ways and don’t and others), I feel like I shouldn’t yet have reached an age where anything I did as a grown-up could be 20 years ago. According to this Salon article, this may be a common feeling for a segment of “Generation X,” since so many of us, regardless of profession, started our “grown-up” lives later than generations before us. (As my students would say, I found that article really “relatable.” As they say on the interwebs, though, YMMV.) Or maybe it’s just about being 40-something.

I have no idea what I’m trying to say here. Clearly this *post* has gone all wibbly-wobbly. To sum up: 10 years at Rust Belt University and 10 years with Bullock, 8 years as a presence on the intertoobs, and 19 years since I started the graduate program that made it all possible. Oh, and it’s been 6 years since my first book came out and people are still reading it! W00t! Here’s to many more years of successful professional activity and happiness in personal relationships! And maybe I have at least another year of blogging under my belt.

The end (but not really).

Descriptivists vs. Prescriptivists

Have I mentioned how much I love harm-less drudg-ery, the blog of Merriam-Webster lexicographer, Kory Stamper? I think I have some kind of girl crush on Kory. Or I want to be her. Well, no, I don’t want to be her, because then I’d have to deal with insane prescriptivists on a mission every day. (Lordy, the e-mails she gets!) Maybe I just want her to be my BFF. Anyway, her latest post is advice about how to be a sane and reasonable prescriptivist. (Nicole and Maggie, are you listening? Ha! I kid!) Go check it out and you’ll get a sense of her style and humor.

When you’re a medievalist who teaches Old English and Middle English, it’s really hard to be a prescriptivist, but there are some things that just plain irritate me. Note that I did NOT say “aggravate me,” though I’m getting over that one because someone near and dear to me (hint: it’s not Pippi) says that regularly, as do many other astonishingly smart and educated people I know. There are other things that bother me more (example: the developing “accusative I,”  as in “between you and I” — nails on a chalkboard!). But as Kory advises, it’s important to remember that such predilections are preferences and opinions, not necessarily facts. (Some linguists, for example, think the accusative-I is here to stay. But for pete’s sake, we were doing so well with the pronoun case system for over a thousand years, and I’d like to hold on to *some* truly Old English! Sigh.) And when I “correct” many student papers, I’m careful to say that words like “impactful” are non-standard; I never write things like “not a word.” (And, oh, by the way, I am certainly not immune to non-standard usage; apparently, all British-trained and some American-trained copy editors would have a fit over my using “like” to announce an example, rather than “such as.” I’ll happily change that in my formal writing, but this a blog and I don’t want to sound stilted.) But juggling the “isn’t language change fascinating?!” version of me with the “no, your career did not just literally shoot into the stratosphere — unless you’re an astronaut; and also, the stratosphere is not very high” version of me is sometimes difficult.

All of which reminds me of the time one of my senior colleagues, a(n)* historical linguist named Dorothy, wrote to me in an e-mail that she didn’t know how to balance her training as a(n) historical linguist with her inclinations towards prescriptivism in reference to student writing. My reply was two words long. Want to guess what those word were? They were:


Yeah, I know that’s not the first time someone used that phrase in reference to her, I’m sure, but in the circumstances it was just too, too perfect. I had to do it.

Anyway, for those of you who work with older texts (literary or otherwise) in English (or, hey, other languages) and are acutely aware of how language changes, how do you balance a recognition of that with a need to hone student writing to what is generally and broadly considered standard English (or another language), especially for writing?

*See what I did there? I tried to make everyone happy with that “a(n).”

The difference class size makes

I may come back and revise this after I’ve taught more than one week of classes this semester, but so far, I’ve seen a striking difference in the two sections of gen-ed poetry I teach, and I think a lot of it has to do with class size. One class is an experimental 8-week section that meets four times a week, and so I’ve essentially taught two weeks of it already; the other is a conventional 16-week class that meets twice a week, so I’ve only seen them twice. But still, I’m seeing differences in the two classes and what the students and I can accomplish in them, and that has a lot to do with the fact that the 8-week class has only 5 students in it, while the 16-week class has 33. (NB: normally the administration wouldn’t let a 5-person class run, but the whole 8-week thing is part of a program the dean and higher admins are keen about, because it’s meant to allow students to get three-year degrees, so they’re letting the small enrollments slide. Why they’re all gung-ho about three-year degrees, since our students pay per credit hour and not per academic year, I don’t quite understand. [Edited to add: Which is not to criticize the program — I’m just expressing my puzzlement.] I guess it saves students a year of opportunity costs? [ETA: Bullock tells me they actually worked out a tuition savings, too. OK, now I get it.] So far it doesn’t seem very popular, but maybe it will grow?)

Anyway, the five students and I in the 8-week class are so far digging deeper into the poems we discuss. We get further with them than we do in the bigger class. Part of that is because this is a self-selecting group of ambitious students, I’m sure. But it’s also because with only six of us in the room, people are quicker and more willing to speak up, conversation is a little less intimidating — it’s conversation and not discussion, in a way — and so things move faster. And in this class we already know each other and feel comfortable with each other — I can tell you all their names and majors! — and the students talk to each other. This means already if one of them thinks the other is a little misguided in how they’re interpreting something, they’ll actually jump in and gently respond to the misguided reader (and then I can say, “So and so is right” if the misguided student doesn’t buy it). If the other students are doing some of the correcting and not me (except to reinforce it), the misguided person is less intimidated, and continues to talk later — they don’t do that shutting down thing. So conversation continues apace. Or they reach different but equally valid interpretations of something, and they are not afraid to say so — that gives me a “teaching moment” to talk about interpretative ambiguity, the possibility of different readings, etc.

Now, there are plenty of students capable of this in the other section, too. In fact, I can tell I’ve got some really sharp students in there. But I also get the sense that I’ve got students getting lost already. But I’m not really sure, since they don’t talk and I haven’t given a quiz or paper assignment yet. And no one talks to each other — they face forward and talk to me. I can encourage them to respond to each other, but it’s not going to happen as easily, naturally, or quickly as it has already in the other class. Meanwhile, in the other class, I know exactly who is really getting things and who might be struggling a little bit more just from our conversations, and I even know the different things they struggle with. Since *everyone* talks, I’m getting a sense of where they all are already, after only 4 class meetings.

Now, I’ll sooner or later understand where each student is in the bigger class, but they won’t get the personal attention that the 5 students in the other class will get. Yes, I’ll spend the same amount of time on each student’s papers and other assignments in both classes, but it’ll be spread out over time, and have less of an impact than the personal attention that happens daily in the smaller class. And yes, I can do things to make smaller units in the big class — group work and the like — but it won’t be as sustained as the class that’s essentially a small break-out group every day, and I won’t be able to observe every small group all the time, as I can with the small class.

I’m not saying that all college classes should be 5-person classes. I know that’s not realistic. But I think those schools that advertise their small classes are absolutely right to do so, and I think it’s a “feature” worth paying a premium for if you’re a bill-paying parent or student. This isn’t really news to me (or to you, I assume) — I’ve seen the difference from one class to another because I teach a range of classes, from MA seminars to big general ed classes — but this is the first time I’ve had two sections of the same exact course with such different enrollments. So far the effects of those enrollments are subtle, but they’re noticeable. We’ll see how things pan out by the end of the semester. Maybe the other class will catch up, or maybe the small class will always get something more out of the class.

Have you ever had substantially different enrollments across two different sections (or terms) of the same course? Did you see a difference?


After tenure I was kind of depressed. Some likened it to post-partum depression and another friend said it was the golden cage syndrome. And not long ago I felt like I was in a mid-career rut and not happy about it. But something changed in the last six months to make me feel more confident, more at ease. Maybe it was just having a very relaxing summer — no trips overseas to plan, no conferences, and an awesome, lazy vacation to a lake with a superiority complex and a cabin in the woods, and many morning and evenings at home spent on our lovely new deck furniture in what has been a pretty mild summer (when it wasn’t raining).  Or maybe it was having a *productive* summer that did it — though I haven’t quite finished it to polished state, and I need to give it to friends to read before I send it out to a journal, I did complete a 10,000-word draft of that article that I’ve been sitting on for way too long. And I learned some Italian, too!

At any rate, here’s a measure of the confidence and ease I feel with who I am and where I am in my career. The other day I was revisiting the five reviews my first book received, all of them largely positive (yay!), but each with some criticism to make. I read those criticisms, some of which overlapped, and thought, for the most part, the critics were absolutely right. And I just kind of shrugged and made a mental note to try not to do that in future work. Or, where I thought they were wrong, even if overlapping, in their criticism I thought, “Eh, just make it clearer what you’re doing next time, Virago, since folks don’t get it.” And where they made points that differed from each other, I thought, “Well, you can’t please all of the people all of time.” And that’s it. So it goes.

And get this: I came across a line in one of the reviews that I’d totally forgotten about, one that might make a lot of people go “WTF?”, but it just made me laugh. In fact, I laughed so hard I made a Facebook comment about it. So what was the line?  Apparently, Dr. Virago “writes an excellent endnote.” What a weird line of faint praise! Anyway, I totally want this on my tombstone, present tense and all.

Who is this person and where did she come from?! Usually I’m the person who remembers the one stinker evaluation comment in the batch and forgets the 29 glowing ones, and then fumes about the stinker for weeks. So how did I become so cool and confident of late?

Maybe it’s a settling into tenure? Maybe it’s just realizing, on some level, that this is who I am and it works for me, and being happy with that? At any rate, remind me of this feeling next time I get in a funk, OK?

And btw, you can see our awesome, relaxing deck here. Meanwhile, here’s one of the gorgeous “North Coast” views we contemplated on our explore-our-own-region vacation (confidential to relocating coasters who may have their doubts: the Midwest *does* have plenty of natural beauty! And water!):

I swear the colors are not manipulated in the photo!

I swear the colors are not manipulated in the photo!

Blog housekeeping: of blogrolls and future posts

So, I finally got around to manually creating a blogroll for this blog, creating it mainly from the blogs I have in my RSS reader. But I’m sure I’ve missed many people who read this blog and who have similar academic/personal blogs, because I haven’t updated my RSS reader in a long time. You deserve to be on the blogroll, too! So, if you want to be added, just post a comment with a link to your blog and let me know!

Also, I want to post something substantial and substantive before the school year starts, but I’m a little uninspired. I was thinking about something about MOOCs, though. I think I have something to say that hasn’t quite been said yet. Maybe. But do you all really want to read another post about MOOCs?

ETA: The Blogroll is down there at the bottom of the right-hand column on the home page, btw. So if you click through to this post from your RSS reader, you’ll need to go to the main page to see it.

RBOC: Early summer edition

    • 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:
    • Frog! This guy was in our backyard, but they're all over the place. I frequently encounter them when I'm gardening.

      Frog! This guy was in our backyard, but they’re all over the place. I frequently encounter them when I’m gardening. I don’t think Pippi ever sees them, since they’re well camouflaged and stay still when another creature is near, so they’re safe from her.

    • And a few weeks ago, we had visits from a pair of these turkeys. No, I mean *actual* *turkeys*:

      Wild turkey! He and his mate or buddy were in the neighbor's yard, just on the other side of our fence.

      Wild turkey! He and his mate or buddy were in the neighbor’s yard, just on the other side of our fence. Pippi treated them more like interlopers than prey — she barked at them and patrolled the perimeter to make sure they didn’t come in our yard.

    • 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):

      One end of the upper deck. Someday the near end will have a dining table and chairs. The coffee table is actually an ottoman -- it's two things in one!

      One end of the upper deck. Someday the near end will have a dining table and chairs. The coffee table is actually an ottoman — it’s two things in one! Since taking this photo, I’ve put a big planter with impatiens in it to the right (in this picture) of the chair with the green pillow, which makes the whole area seem a little more finished. I think there needs to be a colorful, funky end table at the near end of the couch, though.

    • 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 keep moving my own cheese!

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:

Keep in mind I drew this with my finger on an iPhone screen! (And no, we don't have exposed brick in our house -- I just wanted to use the "brick" pattern tool in the game.)

Keep in mind I drew this with my finger on an iPhone screen! (And no, we don’t have exposed brick in our house — I just wanted to use the “brick” pattern tool in the game.)

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!