Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Minor mysteries of pandemic days


  • Why are virtual conferences, seminars, and scholarly get-togethers of all sorts springing up like weeds on my timelines & in my inbox? Why would adding Major Conference Stress, writing a paper frantically amid Covid distractions, and taking the whole circus to Zoom be appealing to so many organizations right now? I get that the lovely people behind all of these are trying to continue a scholarly community, but honestly, having even a small amount of time to think about actual writing WITHOUT Major Conference Stress is one of the few silver linings to this whole situation.
  • I nominate the following as the major genre of writing these days: “Our days are full of despair, and I in particular am completely undone by it. Can’t work at all. And oh, by the way, I’m thrilled to announce that my new 5,000 word article on Vox or Medium or the following journal about my despair and undone-ness has just been published.” 
  • Does anyone share a House Hunters’ Hate-Watch level of interest in what may be called the Scholarly Influencer syndrome? I’m not on Instagram, but my understanding is that Influencers are paid handsomely by ordinary people with apparently oodles of money to show what kind of of pillows and nail polish they buy, or something. The Scholarly Influencer exists, too. I’m not talking about people who share and bond over experiences, liking and congratulating others for achievements and creating a value-added sense of community by posting information that’s not about themselves. I’m talking about the kind that immediately jumps on Facebook or Twitter to announce publications and promote themselves but can’t be bothered to respond to others and be part of the community on either. 
  •  Is anyone else either (1) amused or (2) irritated by the flood of emails telling you of their vast concern from companies you may have ordered something from once 15 years ago but first you have to log in using a password, which requires the whole Password Authentication Dance? 
  • Edited to add: why so many think pieces telling me that baking bread (which *ahem* some of us have been doing for many decades) is pleasurable and comforting? Where’s the follow up piece explaining that water is wet? 
What minor mysteries are puzzling you right now?

Saturday, May 02, 2020

A useful parable, or story, or something, about returning to campus this fall

Dame Eleanor asks about what we're thinking will happen in the fall--online or not?

Well, we are supposed to be back in person. I'm not giving it any more thought than that because summer is when I have to make up for all the writing I didn't do this spring.

If we go back, I will get ready for it, I hope. If we don't, I'll get ready for it, I hope.

One of my favorite ways to think about a situation like this is a joke or parable or story that I heard on a TV drama about Henry VIII decades ago. It goes something like this:
The king--oh, heck, let's call him Henry VIII-- was extremely fond of his favorite horse--let's call him Bucephalus, because that was not his name. However,  he had become really disenchanted with one of his advisors. Let's call him Cromwell, because that is not his name.

Really disenchanted, as in Anne of Cleves disenchanted, Tower disenchanted, thinking about the rack disenchanted. 
 Henry was about to send Cromwell to the Tower. Somehow he got wind of this and sent word that he had a great thing to tell Henry. He met up with Henry walking in the gardens.

"Your majesty, if you give me a year, I can teach Bucephalus to talk," said Cromwell to Henry's back.

Henry turned around. "You can?"

"Yes. If you give me a year, I will train Bucephalus to talk. But it will take the entire year."

"If you do not teach him to talk, you realize that you will be hanged, drawn, and quartered?"

"Yes."

"Very well then. A year from today."

Cromwell bowed his way back from the royal presence. A friend who had been watching stood there with his mouth open.

"Are you insane?" he hissed. "You can't teach a horse to talk. No one can."

"The way I look at it is this," said Cromwell. "A year is a long time. In the space of a year, many things may happen." 
"I may die."
"Or the king may die."
"Or the horse may die."
"Or," he added, "the horse may talk."

So while I can think about the contingencies and the likelihood (or not) of teaching in person in the fall, so far, I'm hoping that the horse will talk. 



Wednesday, April 22, 2020

To resign or not to resign from admin? that is the question

I don't know. Maybe I should quit this admin job. Maybe it's time. (If you don't want to read complaining about something that's not covid, look far away from here.)

 It's not about the work, even though it has taken over my life because as Dame Eleanor said in the comments of my last post, those tasks are easy to knock off.

It is kind of about the hours, because they're eating up all my time.

But really, it's about this. The people I'm working with are good people, but we definitely have different approaches:
  • I'm a systems person, in that I like to have things set up so that they're fair for everyone. With a system, you can point to a way that things work so that they're fair and work within it. It frustrates me when others say "but what about X person?" and don't consider how decisions are going to affect Z and A. Thinking about the individual isn't bad--I don't mean that--it's just that operating in the moment like that leaves a lot of fallout for someone else to consider, and that someone else is often me. It's just a different way of operating, but for me it's exhausting.
  • Also in being a systems person: if you believe that something is going to be a clusterfail, do you let those chips fall where they may? Can you do that and be a good person? I guess I don't think you can, because I keep giving my opinion about how to fix certain things that I know about when asked. The person whose job it is to answer these questions is off doing scholarship or something, and I'm putting out fires that are not my fires to put out. 
  • Or sometimes I'm trying to put out fires but failing to do so. Example: being asked "How do we solve A?" and answering "well, we can do B and C," only to hear "Right, right--I guess there's nothing we can do about A, then." I can see problems or barriers and explain them, but if people aren't listening to that, it really is a waste of time.
  • The people for whom I'm spending all these many hours solving problems absolutely do not care at all that I'm doing it. It's invisible and thankless work. Sure, I can look in the mirror and say "problem solved--well done, you!" but that's about it. It seems petty, and it is, but there you have it. This is the only thing that's brought me to tears in these many months, and while I know there's a lot of displacement here (my mother's death, covid, etc. etc.), that's still saying something.
The other conclusion I've reached is that maybe the problem is me. Do you remember the "it's a mystery" exchange from Shakespeare in Love?

Henslowe: "Strangely enough, it all turns out well."
Fennyman: "How?"
Henslowe: "I don't know. It's a mystery."

Maybe it'll all turn out well in ways I can't anticipate. Maybe I could "unhand that man" and everything would still be okay.

And maybe I could ignore my email until noon every day at the very least, since that's a practical step in the right direction.

Edited to add: And this is why I love blogging and all of you. I can't share this with anyone else.

Edited to add: it’s completely understandable that no one would notice the work because they have much bigger things on their mind right now.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Random bullets of still glad to be here

Here's how things are going so far:

First of all: yes, I'm grateful for being able to stay home and for having the supplies I need. Yes to all that.

But like everyone else right now, I'm distracted, unable to concentrate, and feeling exhausted.  If I wake up at 3:30 a.m., well, that's it for the night's sleep. This is so even with studiously ignoring all the dystopian fiction and plague novels being relentlessly pushed on Twitter (why? WHY?).

What I have been able to do is keep things going in the administration part of my job, although I've been spending a good 35-40 hours a week on it. That's far above what's in my contract, but it's what's needed to get everything done. Teaching is second, and research right now a nonexistent third, although that's the majority of what I'm supposed to be doing.

The problem is that administrative tasks are something that people notice only if they don't get done. It's invisible work. It's not valued. It's also exhausting to explain how systems work to people who aren't interested and ask the same questions over and over. With my collaborators, after three years I quit trying to get them to participate in a common system that would save us work because they said they wanted it but then ignored it. With administration, that's not so easy. I would like to "unhand that man," but then there would be real consequences.

Here is the covid-related part of this: the best part of being in administration is the connection you get to make to people, but if you're not doing that, it seems thankless in addition to being time-consuming.  I can't quit in the middle of this crisis, but I can think that there are other ways to live once it abates.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Learning bullets of sheltering in place

Nextdoor: We are all Gladys Kravitz now.
  • Although I am still distracted--aren't we all?--my brain has come back online for administrative and class work. I worked on that stuff all weekend. Those of you with kids at home (gwinne, I'm thinking of you) are heroes.
  • Social media 1: still not on Facebook, which I am thankful for.
  • Social media 2: Twitter has been surprisingly generous in tone. I try to post and retweet helpful items and haven't been dragged for it yet. Also, it's a learning space:
    • How to sew a mask and why a vacuum cleaner HEPA bag insert may be useful. 
    • What Instacart is, though we're encouraged to shop ourselves if we can to not overwhelm it for those who cannot get out. 
    • Online course resources for all ages. Virtual museum tours. Performances by musicians. 
    • Actual news, with links, about the pandemic.
  • Social media 3: Nextdoor. I joined this just recently, and while I had heard tales of its suspicious nature and complaining--the Gladys Kravitz syndrome of minding other people's business--what's mostly there are offerings of help or advice: which supermarkets might have some out-of-stock necessity, for example. I haven't been to the store for a couple of weeks, so it's helpful to know this. 
  • In work news: My awesome colleagues have stepped up with all of the changes and we're all working hard to make the rest of the semester as good as it can possibly be for the students.
  • However, if a faculty member who has not attended a faculty meeting for at least five years (apparently with impunity; yes, I'm petty and have kept track) floods everyone's mailboxes with questions and complaints about a university policy, is that sea-lioning? Sea-lioning:  "a type of trolling or harassment which consists of pursuing people with persistent requests for evidence or repeated questions, while maintaining a pretense of civility and sincerity." Or is that just what they call on The Good Place being an "ashhole"?
  •  Remember that phrase "I hope you are well" that we started seeing in emails about 10 years ago? These days we really, really mean it.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Well, that escalated quickly

There we are, thinking about academic life and its issues, and then--

hello, pandemic, is that you?

Concentrates the mind wonderfully, doesn't it?

Our house is pretty well stocked already because of my fervent devotion to the cult of Costco, and 
I'm already teaching online. Social distancing should be possible for us, and yes, I know that that is a privilege.

But like most other universities, we went to online instruction this week, and everyone is scrambling.

We're trying to make sense of university regulations that are both "you definitely should not be on campus" and "you absolutely have to be on campus" and to figure out how to best serve our students.

Some of the regulations seem to be of the vintage that warns students not to keep more than one cow on the campus commons, so that's fun.

Two observations that were not what I expected:

1. Even in the overstuffed Costco the other day, where the lines in the store were extremely long, most people were behaving with some generosity, humor, and helpfulness. Oh, sure, there were some people like the upper-class ladies in A Night to Remember about the Titanic--"young man, I insist that you do what I say. This is all too tiresome"--but most were not. I believe that their modern equivalents are called "Karens" and have "let me see your manager" smooth bobs rather than fussy flowered hats, but the attitude is the same.

2. I absolutely cannot concentrate on anything but the news, mostly via Twitter, NYTimes, & WaPo. I am starting to long for papers to grade, because those are concrete and predictable. When it comes to trying to do my own writing, though, my mind circles back to what's happening.

What have you noticed in this new reality we're facing?





Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Out of the past: Peggy Sue Got Married and high school reunions

Figure 1: Time travel would make a reunion worth it.
Have you ever gone to a high school reunion? 

 I did, once. It wasn't bad, but Peggy Sue Got Married it was not. If there's no magical time travel, what's the point?

But then I got a message from a person I went to high school with, since this is one of the big zero-ending years.  They're planning a reunion, and apparently they had a hard time finding me.

They told me to sign in to this place on Facebook, and it was like a portal to another realm. It really did feel like falling physically into a blue spiral to another time.

This space is filled with all these people I have not seen and mostly have not thought of in decades. It was as though they were all living in an alternate world where high school was still going on, even though they all seem to be perfectly nice adults with jobs and kids and everything.

The people were all talking with each other and remembering things that I had no recollection of, like teachers and classes.

And the people who ran the high school are running this space, too. The same people who were on lists of most popular, or athletes, or cheerleaders, or honor society: they're all there. The "most likely to succeed" lists and things like that: they're posted there, too. That's what I mean by time standing still.

It was just weird to me. It's as though they've been carrying on their own lives in real life and also their high school lives in this alternate space all this time, and I have only now discovered it. 

I'm not trying to criticize this, truly, but it's made me think. Although I belonged to organizations back then, the high school wasn't especially interested in me. Thanks to my mother's insistence that only stupid people bothered to do homework or study, I didn't get the academic trophies, although I did really well on state tests.

Figure 2. Undine in high school
The short version: I wasn't Peggy Sue back then, and I'm still not. I've seen pictures of me in those organizations in high school from old newspapers, and my expression is like the one on the Peleton woman.

I felt somewhat on the periphery then. But in my life as it is now, in the work I do, I don't feel on the periphery.

I think I'm going to let that alternate world go on by itself and skip its festivities.

What about you? Do you go to high school reunions?